Philly judge dismisses defamation lawsuit against city officials

Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz was sued by Desiree Peterkin Bell, who was City Representative and chairwoman of the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia during the Nutter administration, following a news conference he held in August in which he questioned some of the spending from the Mayor's Fund.

A Common Pleas Court judge has dismissed a defamation suit filed against the city controller and the head of the Mayor's Fund for Philadelphia over comments made about the fund last year.

Desiree Peterkin Bell,  who was city representative and chairwoman of the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia during the Nutter administration, sued City Controller Alan Butkovitz following a news conference he held in August in which he questioned some of the spending from the Mayor's Fund. Butkovitz said that the fund Bell oversaw was operated like a “slush fund” with little to no oversight from the board of directors. Peterkin Bell denied the allegation.

"The accusation that Ms. Peterkin Bell circumvented the policies and procedures of the fund is laughable,"  the suit stated. It is the job of the fund's executive director, Ashley Del Bianco, to authorize such expenditures, the suit stated.

The Mayor's Fund 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 fund comes from the annual Philadelphia Marathon.

The controller's review of the fund's reserve account found that nearly $593,000 in expenditures had little to no oversight from the board of directors. He said that more than half of those expenditures had been approved solely by Peterkin Bell.

Butkovitz's report led to a visceral reaction from Peterkin Bell's ally and former boss, Michael A. Nutter. The former mayor issued a statement calling Butkovitz "a liar, a snake, and a hypocrite." A week later, Peterkin filed a defamation lawsuit against Butkovitz and Del Bianco.  Del Bianco was sued for saying that the spending in question was not “appropriate in support of the mayor’s policies and procedures.” 

Butkovitz and Del Bianco asked that the lawsuit be dismissed, arguing that as “high public officials,” they had "absolute immunity" for statements made in the course of their official duties.

Judge Frederica A. Massiah-Jackson agreed and on Tuesday tossed out the lawsuit.

"It's a scary thought that elected officials, particularly in this political climate, under the guise of performing their job can defame someone in public and suffer no consequences," Peterkin Bell said in a statement. 

Butkovitz said in a separate statement: “It was clear from the beginning there was no basis for the lawsuit. The judge confirmed existing law.” 

Del Bianco declined to comment. 

In an 11-page order, Massiah-Jackson disagreed with the lawsuit contention that Butkovitz's comments fell outside of the scope of his official duties.  She also said that Del Bianco's comments were opinions based on facts and not defamatory.

On Wednesday Butkovitz said his office will be releasing a new set of findings "when all of the information has been checked with quality control.”