A Pennsylvania state representative has been charged with stealing over $500,000 from a nonprofit she founded to pay for her vacations, online shopping sprees, and a Porsche, prosecutors announced Wednesday.
Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, a Democrat representing a West Philadelphia district, was charged with several counts—including theft, perjury, and tampering with public records—for allegedly stealing thousands from Motivations Education and Consultation (MECA) by diverting money meant for Medicare and Social Security disability funds, the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office said.
“When corruption erodes the trust that is built between governmental entities and citizens, no one wins,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in a press release. “I’ve said time and time again as Attorney General that no one is above the law, no matter their position of power. And today is no different.”
Johnson-Harrell—who became the first female Muslim member of the state House after winning a special election in March—turned herself in to Philadelphia police on Wednesday morning and has agreed to plead guilty to the charges, Shapiro said. She also has agreed to resign from her political post.
“She has agreed to take responsibility for her crimes and will plead guilty to her charges,” Shapiro said in a Wednesday press conference.
Prosecutors allege that before becoming an elected official, Johnson-Harrell, 53, established MECA to help those with chronic mental illness, intellectual disabilities, and substance-abuse disorders. But instead of helping Philadelphia's “most vulnerable communities,” she allegedly “engaged in corruption that exploited a charitable nonprofit organization she created,” Shapiro said.
According to a probable cause affidavit, “from at least December 2015” the elected official used funds from the non-profit to pay for trips to Mexico and Orlando, matching fox fur coats for her and her husband, and shopping sprees at Ralph Lauren. She also used the money on a restitution payment for her 2014 criminal conviction for failing to pay unemployment compensation taxes, prosecutors said.
“While Johnson-Harrell was lining her pockets with MECA funds, MECA’s residents were living in squalor,” Shapiro said, adding she “spent $2,000 on overdue car payments on her Porsche. Another $4,000 on tuition for a relative. And, she spent almost $20,000 on overdue mortgage payments.”
The scheme allegedly continued after Johnson-Harrell was elected to the Pennsylvania House—but she still “amassed large debts” and struggled to pay for her mortgage, utility bills, and car payments, the court papers state.
In 2018, she filed for bankruptcy, allegedly claiming she’d earned tens of thousands of dollars less than she’d actually made and overstating her charitable expenses in tax returns. She also lied on her financial disclosure statement when she ran for the House, the affidavit states.
“When her personal checking account was low, she simply refilled it with money from MECA’s account,” Shapiro said.
To cover up the crime, prosecutors allege Johnson-Harrell created false financial statements for the charity, recording made-up expenses for several Philadelphia properties intended for MECA residents. The scheme eventually forced the charity to shutter the properties, which were partly funded by Medicaid and Social Security disability checks, due to uninhabitable conditions, the affidavit states.
The affidavit states an investigation into the charity began in 2018 after one of the nonprofit’s homes—where MECA recipients were living in “squalor,” according to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services—was forced to close “to avoid legal action.”
While its residents were forced to move to other homes, Johnson-Harrell allegedly “continued to write herself monthly ‘rent’ checks from MECA’s bank account—for a charitable facility that no longer existed.”
Before taking office, Johnson-Harrell served as a supervisor in the Victim and Witness Services Unit of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. She resigned in January to run for the House.
In a statement on Wednesday, Johnson-Harrell confirmed she was stepping away from her House position to avoid becoming “a distraction for my friends and neighbors who need so much.”
“I am saddened and dismayed by the nature of the allegations brought against me today. 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,” Johnson-Harrell said in a statement.