Levitt theft an outrage to Philadelphians who work for a living

    Joyce Levitt worked for Visit Philadelphia from 2003 through 2012 and was CFO for seven years. (Philadelphia District Attorney's Office)

    Joyce Levitt worked for Visit Philadelphia from 2003 through 2012 and was CFO for seven years. (Philadelphia District Attorney's Office)

    When the news broke Wednesday that a grand jury had recommended filing charges of theft, forgery, and fraud against Joyce Levitt, former chief financial officer of Visit Philadelphia, I was enraged.

    How can someone be so unsatisfied with a $120,000 annual salary that she would feel the need to steal $200,000 over seven years? And worse, to manipulate friends, coworkers, and superiors into pretending like it wasn’t happening.

    She was a bad egg, an unhappy woman with a twisted sense of morality, and she’s a perfect example of how a certain kind of rich person is always trying to get richer (even if it’s illegal). I work hard. I have multiple jobs and one day off a week. It’s hard for me to read about her and not get enraged.

    She’s busted now and, perhaps, in deep trouble. (She turned herself in on Wednesday to face those charges.) But boy, if it isn’t maddening!

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    Surely this taps into the rage that Bernie Sanders supporters are excited about. The 1 percent are what’s wrong with our economy — eager to screw over the rest of us to satisfy their unquenchable avarice. Levitt may not be among that 1 percent, but grand jury reports say she used company funds for expensive meals, skin-care services and furs — all things that could easily be purchased with a six-figure salary, no?

    Blame where blame is due

    Put simply, Levitt is a thief. But dig a little deeper, and you get a more complex story. She was fired in 2012 after the embezzlement was discovered. Visit Philadelphia has supported the ongoing investigation. And her greed isn’t necessarily reflective of the organization.

    There are strong implications that CEO Meryl Levitz could have been more watchful — and vocal — especially when, as the grand jury alleges, an employee in 2010 alerted the company to Levitt’s imprudence. The panel also found that that the employee was fired and replaced by a friend of Levitt’s, who had zero accounting experience. Visit Philadelphia’s vice president of of communications, Paula Butler, says the grand jury is incorrect, that the position was eliminated and the employee was not replaced.

    But there’s a takeaway here that I’m still grappling with. When Cara Schneider, the agency’s media relations director, picked up the phone, I could tell she was shaken. Someone from within had done her and her colleagues dirty and now, after a grand jury report has been issued, everyone’s coming for her and her co-workers.

    This isn’t really the time for that. We should focus our anger at the individuals responsible.

    It’s true: Visit Philadelphia gets $11 million in funding from Philly’s hotel tax, but the agency isn’t really required to disclose all of its paperwork and financial data. Sounds like Levitt thought she had hit the sweet spot: No one to find out she was paying her personal credit cards with Visit Philadelphia money.

    C’mon, girl, really?

    This woman has muddied the name of a strong organization, which has admirably ramped up Philly’s tourism market since its inception 20 years ago. To wit, the economic impact from tourism rose from $4.6 billion in 1997 to $10.4 billion in 2014. The city’s growth can take some credit for the bump, but good marketing has certainly helped.

    “She took advantage of her role as CFO and intimate knowledge of the organization to [steal money] and to hide it from the organization’s leadership and auditors,” a statement from Visit Philadelphia reads. “Upon discovery of the misappropriation by Visit Philadelphia’s staff and auditors, funders and legal counsel were engaged, and expert forensic auditors were hired.”

    Take note: That audit cost them an additional $100,000, and the attorney they hired to negotiate a deal with Levitt earned a neat $110,000.

    And that deal: In 2012, Levitt was confronted, she was fired, and she paid Visit Philadelphia back $210,000.

    Not good enough, says Philadelphia DA Seth Williams.

    I wonder how Ms. Levitt feels about those furs right about now.

    Permanently unfair

    And here’s the real kicker: According to the grand jury, she was able to collect $38,308 in unemployment benefits.

    Visit Philadelphia also disagrees here, stating that the agency disputed Levitt’s claim and won.

    It’s heartbreaking. Think of the people working 50 hours a week in a Wendy’s who can’t pay for groceries for their two kids. Or the people who get wrongfully fired but can’t collect lawful unemployment benefits because their employer fights them, knowing they can out-resource some poor twerp. Take it even further: What could a public school or Friends group do with $200,000 of resources in their neighborhood?

    Mayor Jim Kenney was on the board of directors when this all blew up, and is still. He found out at a board meeting, and Williams has advised Kenney’s team to tighten up Visit Philadelphia’s budgeting and finances. But Levitt probably has enough money lying around to hire an expensive lawyer to minimize any kind of time she may have to serve. The cycle continues — the rich protect the rich while the poor continued to get scraps.

    It’s just hard to take. How can someone making a crisp six-figure salary be so unhappy with her riches that she has to steal to feel good about life? Meanwhile, I’m 33, still paying for college, hoping that my credit will get me a mortgage in the next few years, and nervous to spend $100 every other week at the grocery store. Why must things feel so permanently unfair? Thanks to Levitt, her criminal behavior has heightened that aching question in my imagination as winter turns into spring. I should’ve gotten my free Rita’s while I had the chance.

    CLARIFICATION: Reports based on the grand jury statement indicate that an accountant alerted Visit Philadelphia to Levitt’s imprudence, was fired, and was replaced; and that Levitt resigned voluntarily and was able to collect unemployment benefits. Visit Philadelphia disagrees, stating that Levitt was fired and that the agency disputed her claim and she did not receive any unemployment benefits; the employee identified in reports based on the grand jury statement as the whistleblower was not an accountant, and that she did not alert the company to Levitt’s actions; and that she was not fired, but rather the position was eliminated, and it was not filled. The commentary has been updated to reflect these disagreements. Finally, some readers may infer that Levitt is among the wealthiest “1 percent” in the nation. Of course, mathematically, she is not.

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