Prosecutors charged a state House representative from Philadelphia on Wednesday with enriching herself by stealing money from a nonprofit organization she founded to serve the mentally ill and poor who were fighting addiction.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office accused state Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell of perjury, tampering with public records, theft and other charges. Shapiro said a plea deal was expected to be worked out.
Court papers said the theft went on for years, as Johnson-Harrell converted the charity’s funds into investment properties, vacations and luxury clothing. Shapiro said Johnson-Harrell personally spent more than $500,000 from Motivations Education & Consultation Associates, diverting Medicaid and Social Security disability funds.
The 53-year-old Democrat won a special election in March for a West Philadelphia district.
Through her lawyers, she released a statement saying she will resign from her $89,000-a-year seat in the state House later in December.
“I am saddened and dismayed by the nature of the allegations brought against me today,” she said. “I vigorously dispute many of these allegations, which generally pertain to before I took office and I intend to accept responsibility for any actions that were inappropriate.”
Her attorney, Jessica Natali, said they were “ïn the early stage of this case” and declined to “address its merits in the media.”
At a Harrisburg news conference, Shapiro said Johnson-Harrell engaged in “significant and systematic corruption” involving the payments intended for the people who came to her charity for help.
“Defrauding a nonprofit or defrauding taxpayers and then systematically over many years lying to cover it up is unjust, it’s unfair and it is a crime,” Shapiro said.
Prosecutors said the nonprofit will be reorganized and that Johnson-Harrell no longer has any control over its finances.
They said the money went to buy designer clothing, multiple fox fur coats, payments on a Porsche, tuition for a relative and travel to Mexico and Florida. They said she also spent $8,000 on criminal restitution from a 2014 conviction for not paying unemployment taxes.
When WHYY went to talk to voters in her district about the indictment, most did not know who Johnson-Harrell was.
Longtime resident Beverly Holmes voted for her and calls the allegations against Johnson-Harrell are troubling. However, she’s willing to reserve judgement…for now.
“I’m willing to give her a chance to prove that she didn’t do it. I would give anybody a chance. I mean, I would hope they give me a chance,” Homes said.