Another Party Pick Pleads Guilty

(DCC Chair Bob Brady says all party picks will have 'baggage' | Photo: Bob Brady, Philadelphia Inquirer)

This week we saw another political bombshell with Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell announcing her resignation after being indicted by Attorney General Josh Shapiro on charges of perjury, tampering with public records, theft and more related to allegations that she misspent more than $500,000 of non-profit funds intended for people fighting addiction. Shapiro told the AP's Mark Scolforo he expects the case will result in a plea deal. 

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 [...]

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.

Justice will be served, but nothing about this feels good. Rep. Johnson-Harrell was the first female Muslim member of the state House, and has faced many personal tragedies in her life, having lost her 18-year-old son to gun violence She's been a tenacious advocate for gun reform in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, and before being elected, was working for D.A. Larry Krasner in the victim and witness services unit. Learning about the specific charges against her, though, and the harm that she ultimately inflicted on people in her non-profit's care homes is deeply upsetting. 

It's also upsetting for the residents of the 190th State House district, who have just seen two of their state reps in a row plead guilty to crimes in office. The reason Rep. Johnson-Harrell was elected in a special election is because the prior Rep. Vanessa Lowry-Brown stepped down after being convicted of accepting a $4,000 bribe as part of a sting.

After Rep. Lowry-Brown's conviction and removal from office, the vacancy in the seat led to a special election where area ward leaders selected, and then rejected, two other people for the Democratic nomination before ultimately landing on Rep. Johnson-Harrell as a third choice, who then went on to win the special election. Pastor Pamela Williams ran in that same election as a Working Families Party candidate, and another local activist Amen Brown ran as an independent after initially seeking the Democratic nomination. 

Zooming out, the really crazy thing is that these back-to-back resignations of state Reps on criminal charges aren't even an isolated incident in Philadelphia politics. In the 197th State Rep district in North Philadelphia, first Rep. J.P. Miranda and then his successor Rep. Leslie Acosta both left the office after pleading guilty to charges. Acosta's resignation kicked off one of the nuttier special elections in recent history, culminating in the write-in election of Emilio Vasquez in 2017. Former Maria Quinones-Sanchez aide Danilo Burgos then proceeded to win a primary against Vasquez in 2018. (There is a rumor that recently-defeated Sheriff Jewell Williams will run a primary campaign against Burgos in 2020.) There too, there was a whole fiasco where Democratic City Committee initially nominated Freddie Ramirez for the special election, but he got bounced on a residency challenge, and the Party then settled on Emilio Vasquez as a write-in candidate. 

Special elections tend to be when the hack-iest, most Party-connected candidates get into office since the Party has direct nomination power without a primary election, and AP reporter Mark Scolforo helpfully draws the line of accountability for Rep. Johnson-Harrell's conduct straight back to Democratic City Committee Chair Bob Brady, who—along with PA Democratic State Committee—is ultimately the one responsible for candidate quality control.

Asked to comment on Johnson-Harrell's indictment and subsequent resignation, Brady’s response was to deflect blame, adding that all the candidates that party leaders would consider appointing tend to have “baggage.”

Reacting to the indictment, Philadelphia Democratic Committee Chairman Bob Brady noted Johnson-Harrell was actually the party’s third pick for the seat after Lowry Brown’s resignation.

“We went through a ton of people that came in front of us all had baggage, so we’ve got to do an extensive search to get this thing right,” Brady said. He says he’s not sure if stronger vetting of candidates would necessarily prevent something like this from happening again. “In this day and age, most of the people we put up have some baggage,” he said.

It's true that everybody's probably got some baggage, but not everybody who lives in the 190th District has baggage quite like this, which was known at the time the Party was vetting people. There was enough there to be skeptical at the time, as Chris Brennan reported. 

The Democratic nomination fell to Johnson-Harrell. But that required a 90-minute meeting at the Democratic City Committee headquarters, where her recent financial woes were discussed. Johnson-Harrell last year closed the personal-care home she operated, and she filed for bankruptcy in November, citing $607,429 in liabilities.

That includes a $465,000 default judgment from a loan secured by the properties where she ran her business. She also has been the subject of several liens for unpaid Philadelphia property taxes, including three more filed by the city last week.

This comes back to the issue of Party reform, and who gets to apply for and vote on nominations for special elections. As is typical, the 6 ward leaders overlapping the 190th District were the only ones who had a chance to vote on who the special election nominee would be. And we also have no idea how the opening was advertised, or who was allowed to pitch to those ward leaders. 

Meanwhile, there are over 100 elected committee people in the district who, unlike the ward leaders, are directly elected by their neighbors on the ballot. In other parts of Pennsylvania, county parties allow Democratic committee people to vote on nominations for special elections and other endorsements.

There's obviously no silver bullet to ensure that you don't end up with problematic nominees in that kind of process either, but what seems more trustworthy: a vote of 6 unelected people in a back room somewhere voting on a nominee using unknown criteria for choosing who is allowed to apply, or a public meeting of more than 100 directly elected people voting on candidates who are allowed to apply for the vacancy through an open process? More political competition isn't a perfect solution, but it's the best system we have for selecting accountable and trustworthy elected officials.

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  • Jon Geeting
    published this page in Blog 2019-12-06 13:44:42 -0500