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Fur coats, resort vacations and a Porsche: Lawmaker resigns after allegedly taking $500,000 from her charity

Movita Johnson-Harrell speaks at a news conference in Philadelphia on Dec. 19, 2018. Johnson-Harrell, a Pennsylvania state lawmaker, is facing charges after prosecutors accused her of stealing money from a nonprofit organization she founded. (Matt Rourke/AP)

The nonprofit founded by a Pennsylvania lawmaker was meant to help some of the neediest people in West Philadelphia, caring for and housing those struggling with addiction, poverty and mental illness.

Yet over the past decade, officials say, state Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell (D) used more than $500,000 from the charity’s bank accounts to pay off a Porsche, multiple fur coats and pricey vacations to Mexico — not to mention funding her two campaigns for a state seat representing a Philadelphia district.

Although the Democrat disputed some of those charges, she also submitted her resignation Thursday from office, and officials said she is planning to plead guilty to some charges, which include theft, perjury and related crimes.

“Her theft knew no bounds,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said. “No one is above the law, no matter their position of power. And today is no different.”

Johnson-Harrell, 53, is the 60th public official in Pennsylvania to have been arrested by Shapiro’s office since 2017. But the allegations against her stand out.

Prosecutors say the lawmaker used her charity as a “cash account,” drawing in some cases from her clients’ government benefits, and covered it up by lying on her personal financial records or those of her nonprofit and campaign.

“I vigorously dispute many of these allegations, which generally pertain to before I took office,” she said in a statement to the Associated Press, “and I intend to accept responsibility for any actions that were inappropriate.”

A lawyer for Johnson-Harrell did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post.

Johnson-Harrell, who said she was the first female Muslim member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, was elected in March and rapidly emerged as an outspoken voice against gun violence. She was in part motivated by her own family’s painful history: Four relatives — her father, only brother, a cousin and her 18-year-old son — have been fatally shot.

The death of her brother, who went undiagnosed and untreated for bipolar disorder and PTSD, is what she said first motivated her to start her charity, Motivations Education & Consultation Associates (MECA), about two decades ago.

Under her leadership as executive director, the organization “has advocated, cared for and fought to improve the quality of life for disenfranchised groups,” Johnson-Harrell said in a University of Pennsylvania biography.

In 2005, she privately bought three adjacent rowhouses in the neighborhood of West Powelton, prosecutors said, before renting the property to MECA in 2013 — for the exact cost of her mortgage payments.

The three buildings were supposed to serve as a personal care home, in part funded by residents’ Medicaid and Social Security disability benefits. But when state health officials threatened to shutter the space because of its squalid conditions, MECA kicked out its residents.

Even then, with the space unused, the charity kept paying rent to its executive director.

“While Johnson-Harrell was lining her pockets with MECA funds,” Shapiro said, “MECA’s residents were living in squalor.”

In the meantime, Johnson-Harrell was appointed to a job overseeing victim services for Philadelphia’s district attorney in November 2017, and launched an unsuccessful bid for her current seat in the Pennsylvania House.

In addition to making direct transfers to her bank account, “Johnson repeatedly wrote checks for ‘cash’ on MECA’s account, in varying amounts, whenever she needed extra money,” prosecutors said in a lengthy criminal complaint.

The nonprofit’s coffers ended up funding a laundry list of high-ticket items: matching fox fur coats for her and her husband. Designer clothes from Ralph Lauren and luxury online retailers. Overdue car payments on her Porsche Cayenne. Private-school tuition for her grandchildren.

And after MECA paid for trips to Mexico, Atlanta and Ocean City, spending $16,000 on travel in 2017, prosecutors turned to the lawmaker’s social media for answers. “Johnson’s Facebook posts from these vacation destinations, leave no doubt that these were pleasure trips,” they wrote in the complaint.

Johnson-Harrell inflated the salary of a relative who worked at MECA so that family member could purchase a West Philadelphia house that the lawmaker moved into — and for which she paid the mortgage.

In January 2018, when that house was foreclosed on and she went into default on another property, prosecutors said, MECA gave its executive director a $70,000 “loan” ― which she later used to pay off her real estate financial woes.

Last year, the sitting state representative for her district resigned following a bribery conviction. So Johnson-Harrell made another go for the job.

Much like her car, and her house, and her fur coats, though, her campaign was also bankrolled by MECA. Prosecutors say that she transferred $12,500 directly from the charity’s bank account to her campaign committee, which she told to record the money as a personal loan from her. She also allegedly funneled another $30,000 to the charity through her personal bank account.

And while she won the seat handily with nearly two-thirds of the vote, she lasted 10 months in the Pennsylvania House.

In a letter to Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai (R) on Thursday, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the lawmaker said she was “accepting responsibility for some missteps” she made before her election.

“I am choosing to resign to protect my district, to allow for an orderly election for my successor, and to focus on my defense to these allegations,” she wrote.