Pa. state Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell charged with stealing from nonprofit

Pennsylvania state Representative Movita Johnson-Harrell. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Pennsylvania state Representative Movita Johnson-Harrell. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Updated 4:46 p.m.

Prosecutors charged a state House representative from Philadelphia on Wednesday with enriching herself by stealing money from a nonprofit organization she founded to serve the mentally ill and poor who were fighting addiction.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office accused state Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell of perjury, tampering with public records, theft and other charges. Shapiro said a plea deal was expected to be worked out.

Court papers said the theft went on for years, as Johnson-Harrell converted the charity’s funds into investment properties, vacations and luxury clothing. Shapiro said Johnson-Harrell personally spent more than $500,000 from Motivations Education & Consultation Associates, diverting Medicaid and Social Security disability funds.

The 53-year-old Democrat won a special election in March for a West Philadelphia district.

Johnson-Harrell is the first female Muslim member of the state House. She turned herself in to police Wednesday in Philadelphia.

Through her lawyers, she released a statement saying she will resign from her $89,000-a-year seat in the state House later in December.

“I am saddened and dismayed by the nature of the allegations brought against me today,” she said. “I vigorously dispute many of these allegations, which generally pertain to before I took office and I intend to accept responsibility for any actions that were inappropriate.”

Her attorney, Jessica Natali, said they were “ïn the early stage of this case” and declined to “address its merits in the media.”

At a Harrisburg news conference, Shapiro said Johnson-Harrell engaged in “significant and systematic corruption” involving the payments intended for the people who came to her charity for help.

“Defrauding a nonprofit or defrauding taxpayers and then systematically over many years lying to cover it up is unjust, it’s unfair and it is a crime,” Shapiro said.

Prosecutors said the nonprofit will be reorganized and that Johnson-Harrell no longer has any control over its finances.

They said the money went to buy designer clothing, multiple fox fur coats, payments on a Porsche, tuition for a relative and travel to Mexico and Florida. They said she also spent $8,000 on criminal restitution from a 2014 conviction for not paying unemployment taxes.

When WHYY went to talk to voters in her district about the indictment, most did not know who Johnson-Harrell was.

Longtime resident Beverly Holmes voted for her and calls the allegations against Johnson-Harrell are troubling. However, she’s willing to reserve judgement…for now. 

“I’m willing to give her a chance to prove that she didn’t do it. I would give anybody a chance. I mean, I would hope they give me a chance,” Homes said.

Johnson-Harrell previously held a $104,000 job with the victim and witness services unit of the Philadelphia district attorney’s office and is active in an anti-gun violence foundation named for her 18-year-old son, who was shot to death in 2011.

Online on Wednesday, some Philadelphia residents active on reducing gun violence lamented her charge, arrest and expected resignation. They say her leadership on this issue will be missed.

Court papers say the thefts continued even after she worked in the district attorney’s office and started serving in the state House.

On a state statement of financial disclosure form due in May, Johnson-Harrell reported owing to the Internal Revenue Service about $50,000.

She told The Associated Press at that time that the debt went back more than a decade, from a business that helped people with special needs. She said an accountant advised her that if she had appealed in time, she would not have owed anything.

Johnson-Harrell quickly made her presence known in the Capitol. After she was sworn in to office, she objected to a colleague’s session-opening prayer that “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow.”

The lawmaker Johnson-Harrell succeeded was also charged while serving. Democrat Vanessa Lowery Brown resigned in December after being sentenced to 23 months of probation for bribery and other offenses.

Reacting to the indictment, Philadelphia Democratic Committee Chairman Bob Brady noted Johnson-Harrell was actually the party’s third pick for the seat after Lowry Brown’s resignation.

“We went through a ton of people that came in front of us all had baggage, so we’ve got to do an extensive search to get this thing right,” Brady said. He says he’s not sure if stronger vetting of candidates would necessarily prevent something like this from happening again. “In this day and age, most of the people we put up have some baggage,” he said.

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