Nutter, Peterkin Bell go on the attack over Mayor's Fund story

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

Former Mayor Michael A. Nutter and a top aide took issue Monday with an Inquirer and Daily News report that the aide failed to fully account for $52,000 in spending in 2015 while serving as chairwoman of the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia.

Desiree Peterkin Bell, former city representative and chair of the fund, called the story “baseless,” while Nutter labeled the fund’s executive director as “unscrupulous and deceptive” for calling attention to Peterkin Bell’s accounting failures and not having informed him while he was in office.

Neither Peterkin Bell nor Nutter, however, challenged the basic facts of the story -- that Peterkin Bell failed to provide receipts and explanations for her spending as required by fund protocol. That spending included 458 Uber trips, charges at Macy’s, meals at posh local restaurants, and travel to New York City and Washington.

Monday’s article said the fund’s executive director, Ashley Del Bianco, was concerned enough by Peterkin Bell’s spending that she took the issue to the City Controller’s Office for review.   

In response, Nutter attacked Del Bianco in a 1,500-word statement Monday, for which he was rebuked by the Kenney administration.

Del Bianco “has demonstrated the worst of human traits -- a lack of honesty, serious personal character deficiency, and a lack of professional integrity,” Nutter wrote on his website. By Wednesday, the statement was no longer available on the website.

“I am stunningly disappointed, disgusted, and offended that Ashley Del Bianco would withhold what she thought was important information or concerns about the operations of the Mayor's Fund from the person who appointed her to the executive director position, which was me.”

Peterkin Bell, who declined requests for comment before the story appeared, issued her own response Monday afternoon.

“I sincerely still believe that facts matter in the end, your proven record matters,” she wrote in a statement. “That’s why the baseless claims in today’s article give me no pause for concern. I will do what’s necessary to defend my name and my record.”

Referring to Del Bianco, Peterkin Bell wrote: “As for my former colleague, I feel sorry for her ... I hope that through this arduous process she will eventually find peace within herself and hope she can find and live in her own purpose.”

Del Bianco declined to comment. A spokesperson for Kenney emailed a statement that read: “The former mayor’s statement contains numerous falsehoods. Mayor Kenney has found Ashley to be an excellent executive director of the fund and, based on all the available information, he believes she acted appropriately under the previous administration as well.”  

Nutter did not respond to additional requests for comment.

The Mayor’s Fund is a city-run nonprofit that manages from $7 million to $10 million a year to promote tourism, business and economic development, education, culture, and job growth.

In August, City Controller Alan Butkovitz released a preliminary report based on Del Bianco’s complaint. He claimed Peterkin Bell had treated the nonprofit’s assets as a “slush fund,” an allegation that infuriated Nutter, who called Butkovitz “a liar, a snake, and a hypocrite.”

The newspapers filed a Right-to-Know request late last summer to review all credit card expenditures, receipts, and spending documents tied to the fund. Monday’s story was the result of a review of those records and interviews with city officials, including Del Bianco.

Nutter’s diatribe surprised some observers, including David Thornburgh, president of the good-government group Committee of Seventy. “It’s not my job to give the former mayor political advice, but if it were, I would be tempted to say, ‘Just let it go,’” he said. “To see him let loose like this with both barrels, you just think, ‘What’s going on here?’”

Tish Mogan, the standards for excellence director for the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations, said Nutter’s statement raised more questions about oversight of the fund. “He’s just putting the blame on somebody else instead of saying, ‘We encourage the current mayor to look into this,’” she said.

Mogan said an independent agency such as the state Attorney General’s Office could be needed to assess the fund’s integrity. “Given all of the publicity around this right now ... yes, it rises to the level of somebody coming in and looking at things more intensely, because there could be fraud going on.”  

Del Bianco previously said that the credit card policy required cardholders “to support the charges through original receipts and a description of what program the charge was related to.” She said she did not “have the ability to yank the account away from” Peterkin Bell, which Nutter disputed.

“Desiree Peterkin Bell is actually the person who made the policy and protocol changes to ensure the proper financial controls were put in place at the Mayor’s Fund before Ashley even started working there,” Nutter’s statement said.  

In September 2013, Peterkin Bell and the other board members amended the fund’s bylaws to include a line that any “check or transfer of money” for more than $5,000 needed the signature of two officers. The bylaws make no direct references to use of credit cards.

Some fund board members said they did not know the fund had credit cards available to staff and the chair of the board.

Jazelle Jones, as an alternate board member for several years before becoming a Mayor’s Fund board member in October 2015, said she learned the fund had credit cards only when she read about the matter in the news last summer.

“I have never seen anything that details” credit card use by the fund, Jones said.

“I don’t know how nonprofits across the board operate credit cards,” Jones said. “I just know, coming into a new administration, they want to implement new procedures so this doesn’t happen again.”

Nutter's statement suggested that “administrative staff members” had made many of the purchases on Peterkin Bell’s credit card. He also said he was “deeply offended” that Del Bianco “would so shamelessly back stab so many former colleagues,” including Peterkin Bell.

A hallmark of Nutter's administration was an emphasis on raising ethical standards in city government. Thornburgh offered a possible explanation for Nutter’s lengthy statement. “I think former officeholders jealously guard their legacy,” he said. “If there’s any challenge, even relatively minor, there’s a vigorous response.”