Byko: Plundered Mayor’s Fund money must be repaid

Former Mayor Michael Nutter and former City Representative Desiree Peterkin Bell.

I now understand Michael Nutter’s furious defense earlier this month of his former aide Desiree Peterkin Bell. It wasn’t just chivalry.

Seen through the lens of John Donne’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” which tells us no man is an island, Nutter probably expected he would be next in City Controller Alan Butkovitz’s gun sights.

Nutter pelted Butkovitz with words like snake, liar, and hypocrite after the controller's audit on the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia. Because Butkovitz called it a “slush fund,” the fund's former chairwoman Peterkin Bell sued for defamation, but her suit was dismissed. Wednesday, Butkovitz described the fund as a “grab bag of cash” and called on Nutter and Peterkin Bell to repay tens of thousands of dollars.

Butkovitz has turned his report over to the city's Board of Ethics, the state Attorney General's Office and the District Attorney's Office.  It’s a safe bet D.A. Seth Williams won't be handling it. He’s busy with his own corruption defense.

It's not a great moment to be a city Democrat.

In an email to the media, Nutter called Butkovitz’s allegations “false and baseless” and complained that the controller “has NEVER posed a single question to me, directly sought an explanation from me or the individuals whose integrity his reports impugn.” The press would like to get that direct explanation from Nutter, but we have to settle for an email statement.  

There are different ways to handle damage control. One philosophy is to respond fast, fully, and factually. Nutter hasn't done that.

Another philosophy is to spoon out as little as possible to the media and then go underground.  That's the avenue the former mayor is taking.

The controller’s audit found $134,000 in American Express charges over five months in 2015 not supported by receipts or documentation. It also issued $32,000 in grants without the required board approval.

The fund should seek reimbursement of $241,000, the controller recommended, for purchases by Peterkin Bell and others that "did not meet the mission of the nonprofit," including $22,100 spent on a farewell party for Nutter at the end of his second term.  

"There was little, if any, indication from documents and from those who attended as to how this event benefited Philadelphians other than those who were in the mayor's inner circle," Butkovitz said during a news conference Wednesday. The fund is supposed to promote tourism, business, economic development, education, and job growth. It has a $7 million to $10 million annual budget.

It’s not clear how much of this wild spending Nutter knew about or authorized, but the buck stops with him.  

We hear a lot about entitlements that citizens want and get. We hear less about public officials who think they are “entitled” to what former State Sen. Vince Fumo called OPM -- Other People’s Money.  

Fumo did time for corruption, including using OPM to hire detectives to spy on his ex-wife. “Thankful beggar” Seth Williams is accused of selling himself for a custom couch. City Treasurer Corey Kemp traded city contracts for gifts, including a $10,000 sun deck for his home.

It’s actually a civic embarrassment they could be had so cheap. It’s like a lawn sale.

There are too many other fallen angels -- congressmen to councilmen to state reps to Traffic Court judges -- to list here.

You may ask where they got the nerve. You wonder if they got into public service for private enrichment, or if they started out Scout clean and got corrupted along the way. If others are doing with impunity, they may have asked themselves, why shouldn’t I get my beak wet?

The weird thing is others are not getting away with it. How many officials in orange jumpsuits being led away to free lodging at the Hotel Graybar will it take for that to sink in?

Their careers were ended, their reputations shattered because they couldn’t resist the temptation to glom a little extra, to feather their nests with OPM, all part of the finagle culture.

With the Mayor's Fund for Philadelphia, we don’t know if what happened was actually criminal, meaning something that can be prosecuted.

We do know that if those undocumented expenses can’t be justified, the money must be repaid.