Desiree Peterkin Bell (left) says she's suing City Controller Alan Butkovitz for defamation.

Desiree Peterkin Bell (left) says she's suing City Controller Alan Butkovitz for defamation.

Desiree Peterkin Bell vs. Alan Butkovitz: What this lawsuit will look like

Desiree Peterkin Bell, the former City Representative and mayoral spokesperson, says she’ll sue Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz. How’d we get here?

Punch: Tuesday morning. Butkovitz calls a press conference to announce what he says is misspent money from the Mayor’s Fund. Those expenses included:

  • $52,000 at the Philadelphia Courtyard Marriott
  • $46,000 on a trip to Rome
  • $704 in Uber charges
  • An $80 pair of shoes from Macy’s

Counterpunch no. 1: Tuesday afternoon. Former Mayor Michael Nutter responds to the claims of inappropriate spending in a sharply-worded letter on his post-elected-life website, calling Butkovitz “a liar, a snake and a hypocrite.” Peterkin Bell, the former chairperson of the Fund’s Reserves account and the woman Butkovitz says is responsible for the money, maintains in a statement to Billy Penn that all expenses were approved.

Counterpunch no. 2: Thursday afternoon, The Inquirer reported that Peterkin Bell and her lawyer, Joe H. Tucker Jr., plan to center the lawsuit on one very specific portion of Butkovitz’s statements:

“It appears the former chairperson used the Reserves account as if it were a special slush fund.”

Peterkin Bell and Tucker believe this meets the criteria for defamation, but there are several things a person has to prove about a statement in order for it to be considered defamatory.

Step one: Is it true?

First, Peterkin Bell and Tucker will have to prove the statement itself is false. While most speech is protected by the First Amendment, a public official like Butkovitz can’t simply make statements about another person that are flat-out untrue. Peterkin Bell needs to prove the falsity of his central claim: That she used the Mayor’s Fund Reserves account as a slush fund.

Tucker said that they will refer to other parts of Butkovitz’s comments to do this, such as his statements about the $80 Macy’s shoes among the expenses in question. He said the shoes were purchased after a model in the Philadelphia Collection fashion show broke hers.

Step 2: Intent

They’ll also need to prove that the statement was made maliciously, or with the main intent to cause her harm personally or professionally. Because Peterkin Bell is a public figure, her burden of proof is higher than it would be if she were a private individual. Public figures are naturally subject to a higher level of scrutiny.

Tucker did not specify the amount sought in damages. “More important than money is clearing [Peterkin Bell’s] name,” he said.

Deputy Controller Bill Rubin’s would not comment on the specifics of the lawsuit, but simply provided a statement that says, “In the course of doing our work, from time to time, there is legal action involved.”

Tucker plans to file the suit next week.

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