Byko: Mayor’s Fund scandal exposes finagling culture

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

I’ve got a confession to make.

I once tipped $60 on a $250 bottle of Champagne at La Buca because the waiter said he was a big fan of my column.

No, not this column, the old one, the one with the birthdays — the gossip column that (almost) everyone read, even if they wouldn’t admit it.

I didn’t have to fake my expense account because the editor and managing editor had taken me out to celebrate the column’s first anniversary. (What the boss called it on his expense report, I don’t know.)

Over the many years of that column I may have cheated on expenses a little, but one thing was certain — to be reimbursed, I needed a receipt or at least a full description of the expense, the lowest level of proof. One of my predecessors (Larry Fields) was notorious for stockpiling pads of blank receipts from area restaurants.

I’m not telling secrets out of school because almost everyone was in the know, including the bosses, who allowed him to pad his expense account.

A lot of journos were weeping about Jimmy Breslin this week, because he was talented and a character. They never met Larry Fields.

Then I open the paper, and I realize just what a bunch of pikers we are.

Desiree Peterkin Bell could teach a master’s class in finagling.

She sued City Controller Alan Butkovitz for defamation after he reported that she, as chair of the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia, treated it as a “slush fund.” The Mayor’s Fund is supposed to promote tourism, business, economic development, education, culture, and job growth. It has a bankroll of  $7 million to $10 million annually.  

A Monday story in the Daily News and Inquirer revealed high charges by Peterkin Bell, but centered on $52,000 for which there was neither an itemized receipt nor an explanation. Included was $8,738 in Uber charges, an $80 pair of shoes from Macy’s, and a $150 Ivanka Trump brand-name item that was not specified. That had to be the worst: A Democrat supporting a Trump? I guess Nordstrom was wrong about no one buying Ivanka's stuff.

She was spending like Beyoncé with credit cards linked to the Mayor’s Fund and declined to talk to reporters before the Monday story.

Peterkin Bell had been Mayor Nutter’s spokeswoman and before that had worked for Newark Mayor Cory Booker and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Nutter sprang to her defense, calling the controller “a liar, a snake, and a hypocrite.”

The court dismissed her lawsuit.

Sometimes you can’t buy justice. Sometimes you also can’t buy a face-to-face interview with Peterkin Bell. Ironically, she teaches an “urban communication” course at Penn that “looks at how cities and their leadership communicate with the public,” according to the Penn website.

After the story broke, Nutter and Peterkin Bell offered furious responses — in writing, not taking questions.

Each fingered Mayor’s Fund executive director Ashley Del Bianco for taking her concerns about the wild spending to Butkovitz, rather than to Nutter, who had hired her. Maybe Del Bianco was fearful because the guy who hired her also hired her boss. We don’t know because she’s declining comment.

This brewing scandal would be even worse if the Mayor’s Fund, which has two full-time staffers, was taxpayer money, but it’s funded mostly through fees collected by the Philadelphia Marathon. On its website the Mayor’s Fund says it “is committed to a superior level of stewardship of all public and private funds.”  

This mess is noteworthy for the apparent cronyism involved — especially galling because Nutter had set himself up as a municipal Mr. Clean — bald, but no earring. He ignored advice from Inspector General Amy Kurland to fire then-City Representative/Mayor’s Fund Chair Melanie Johnson for allegedly making questionable purchases with Mayor’s Fund money. She was succeeded by Peterkin Bell, who promptly seemed to do the same thing.

If you are keeping count, that’s two in a row. Will there be a third? Current City Rep/Mayor’s Fund Chair Sheila Hess told me the board had implemented five policy recommendations from the controller's report. That's good news. 

Even if no crime has been committed, what happened here is yet another example of the chiseling, nest-feathering, glom culture of an elite political class that lacks class, and that forgot where it came from and whom it is supposed to represent.