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.