Controller offers defense in defamation suit

Sued for defamation for labeling the Mayor's Fund for Philadelphia a "slush fund" for the former Nutter administration, City Controller Alan Butkovitz has claimed immunity as a public official.

Butkovitz and the executive director of the Mayor's Fund, Ashley Del Bianco, were sued by Desiree Peterkin Bell, former city representative and chairwoman of the Mayor's Fund.

Peterkin Bell contends she was defamed by Butkovitz's remarks, which were bolstered by comments to reporters by Del Bianco.

Butkovitz and Del Bianco contended in recent court filings that they have immunity because their statements were made in the course of their official duties.

The Mayor's Fund for Philadelphia is a nonprofit run by city officials who manage $7 million to $10 million each year to promote tourism, business and economic development, education, culture, and job growth. Much of the funds comes from the annual Philadelphia Marathon.

In August, Butkovitz said that nearly $593,000 was spent from a Mayor's Fund account that had little to no oversight from the board of directors. He said that more than half those expenditures had been approved solely by Peterkin Bell.

Peterkin Bell refuted those allegations, saying that all money was spent appropriately.

In the request for dismissal of Peterkin Bell's suit, attorneys for Butkovitz said he was commenting on the Mayor's Fund's spending as part of an official review by his office, and, therefore, was acting in his official capacity as controller.

The response said that Del Bianco is also a "high public official for purposes of absolute immunity" because her duties include policy-making for the public benefit.

Peterkin Bell's attorney, Jesse Klaproth, said that "while high public officials are given immunity against claims for defamation, it is not without limits and is not a license to slander with impunity."

The response on behalf of Butkovitz and Del Bianco included a summary of some of the findings in Butkovitz's review of the fund.

One of those findings was that "family members of the Nutter administration" were put up at the Philadelphia Courtyard Marriott during the papal visit last year. It had previously been reported that the Mayor's Fund paid $52,000 for rooms at the Marriott. The city has said the rooms were for city officials and personnel working the papal visit.

The Controller's Office provided a summary of 25 room charges that the office obtained from the hotel, which showed that Peterkin Bell, Nutter, and Nutter's chief of staff, Everett Gillison, had two rooms each.

The Controller's Office also provided two "manifest" lists of 39 people, including relatives of the mayor and his staff, who were to be passengers of vans leaving from the hotel for papal events.

"Hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians and pilgrims would have loved the opportunity to have a hotel room inside the traffic box paid for by someone else that also included taxpayer-funded transportation to all the events," Butkovitz said.

Nutter said only his wife stayed with him at the hotel. Other family members, including his mother, met him at the hotel during the pope's visit, he said, and traveled with him as part of his entourage for papal events.

"That list is a list of people who were attending various events, who needed to 'stay together' as a group in order to get around and we made the hotel location a 'meeting place.' Period," Nutter said in a text message response.

Peterkin Bell's husband, Brian, is also listed on the manifest list.

Klaproth, Peterkin Bell's attorney, said his client had no family with her at the hotel. He said that Peterkin Bell had an extra room for police personnel.

Several family members of Gillison are also listed on the manifest. Gillison, who left his city job when Nutter left office in January, acknowledged in an interview that his family stayed with him at the Marriott during the papal visit.

Gillison said that hosting his family on the Mayor's Fund's tab was "above board" because "it's not taxpayer money."

"I was the one who invited them," Gillison said, adding that the papal visit was during the World Meeting of Families. "There was a focus on family. This was supposedly who it was for."

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