Top Nutter official Peterkin Bell accused of misusing $245K in taxpayer money

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro says former Mayor Michael Nutter's cabinet member Desiree Peterkin Bell surrendered Tuesday on charges of stealing more than $20,000 using two city credit cards and misapplying $225,000 in taxpayer money. (Bobby Allyn/WHYY)

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro says former Mayor Michael Nutter's cabinet member Desiree Peterkin Bell surrendered Tuesday on charges of stealing more than $20,000 using two city credit cards and misapplying $225,000 in taxpayer money. (Bobby Allyn/WHYY)

Updated: 4:34 p.m. EST

A former top official in former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration was  criminally charged Tuesday with stealing and misusing thousands of taxpayer dollars.

Desiree Peterkin Bell, whom Nutter appointed to his Cabinet as city representative, surrendered to authorities shortly after a Pennsylvania grand jury unsealed the charges that include multiple counts of theft, receiving stolen property and tampering with public records.

Bell allegedly used two city to credit cards to pay for more than 500 Uber trips, a wedding anniversary trip to Portland, Oregon, a family vacation in Orlando, where she stayed in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and shopping sprees at Macy’s. She purchased pricey dresses, shoes and necklaces on the taxpayer’s dime, according to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

In all, Shapiro said, Bell is accused of ringing up a tab that exceeded $20,000 on city-backed credit cards and misappropriating some $225,000 from the Mayor’s Fund, a nonprofit that oversees some $10 million in annual grants for city programs, including the Philadelphia Marathon.

Yet Bell, according to prosecutors, depleted the fund by pursuing pet projects and improperly shuffling the public money.

“This former city representative ran the mayor’s fund as her own personal fiefdom,” Shapiro said. “She ruled by fear and used her close relationship with the mayor to amass power and to intimidate city employees to do exactly what she wanted.”

In a statement, Nutter said he was “greatly saddened and very deeply disappointed to learn the details of this new information and these specific allegations.”

Nutter was not aware of Bell’s actions, Shapiro said. And prosecutors would not say whether Nutter cooperated in the investigation.

“If these new allegations are true, they do not reflect the tone and standards that I established for my administration during my tenure,” Nutter said Tuesday. “As the mayor during the time in question, I am very sorry for any potential violation of the public trust in this matter.”

Bringing Forbes event to town

While serving as one of Nutter’s top aides, Bell strongly pushed for  Philadelphia to host Forbes’ “30 under 30” event.

As an incentive to Forbes for holding the four-day event in the city, Bell instructed her staff to prepare a contract that would give Forbes $3 million from the fund.

Although this expense represented about a third of the fund’s annual budget, Bell never presented the Forbes payment to the fund’s board of directors.

According to the charges documents, Bell drew hundreds of thousands of dollars set aside for the Philadelphia Marathon and the International Cycling Classic to cover the payment to Forbes.

The maneuvers ultimately cost the bike race $360,000, the indictment states. Prosecutors are charging Bell with misapplication of entrusted property, tampering with public records and theft in connection with those incidents.

Attorney Walter Weir, who is representing Bell, said his client is innocent and will fight the charges.

Weir said he suspects Shapiro’s investigation will not conclude with the indictment against Bell, but he would not elaborate.

Shapiro also would not say who else may be implicated in the probe. But the attorney general’s office has referred two unnamed former city employees to the Philadelphia Board of Ethics in connection with Bell’s questionable spending.

Bell was arraigned by video in the central detective division in Center City and released without having to post a bond. Her first court appearance has not yet been set.

It is not the first time city officials have faced accusations of misusing public money from the Mayor’s Fund.

In September, the Philadelphia Board of Ethics fined Melanie Johnson, who was Bell’s predecessor, over tapping the fund for personal expenses. Johnson agreed to reimburse the city more than $4,000.

Former City Controller Alan Butkovitz in 2016 accused Bell of being no better than Johnson. Butkovitz claimed Bell used the fund “as if it were a special slush fund,” an accusation dismissed by then-Mayor Nutter.

Bell was so outraged by the comments from the city’s fiscal watchdog that she sued Butkovitz for defamation. A Common Pleas judge dismissed the suit in February.

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