By Michael Coard
First of all, just as a person is not defined by the best thing he or she has done, neither should he or she be defined by the worst.
Second, a person is presumed innocent until found guilty or until having pled guilty.
Third, prosecutors always overcharge people in order to be in a better position to negotiate guilty plea deals favorable to prosecutors.
Fourth, despite what prosecutors always allege in initial indictments or at one-sided press conferences, guilty plea deals always ultimately involve less charges, less restitution, and/or less (or no) jail time.
The public should be aware of those four aforementioned facts before jumping to conclusions about state Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, D-Philadelphia, who, as announced by state Attorney General Josh Shapiro on Dec. 4, was indicted on charges of theft, public records tampering, false reporting, and perjury.
The public should also be aware of the following additional three facts:
None — not one — of the allegations pertain to her role as a state representative. Accordingly, the charges against her do not involve political corruption by an elected official.
Because those allegations do not involve political corruption, taxpayers weren’t cheated out of a single penny by her in her role as a state representative.
The allegations stem primarily from sloppy record-keeping and careless accounting, not criminal maliciousness. In fact, she actually lost money herself due to poor business decisions resulting in her need to shift money around in the reasonably practical but financially naive hope that certain costs and expenses would eventually be covered.
Here’s the background of the case.
Johnson-Harrell is charged with using her non-profit organization, Motivations, Education, & Consultation Associates, to benefit herself in the amount of $500,000 by diverting Medicaid and social security disability funds.
But remember what I said about prosecutorial overcharging, about one-sided press conferences, and about presumption of innocence. Therefore, don’t believe the hype — at least not yet.
Johnson-Harrell realizes she made some mistakes. That’s exactly why she voluntarily surrendered herself. And that’s exactly why she has agreed to plead guilty to some charges and agreed to pay whatever restitution she actually owes.
She also agreed to resign as state representative as part of the upcoming guilty plea deal. And, for me, that’s the worst part because it is her constituents in the 190th District who will suffer in her absence. And here’s why.
As the previous interim Supervisor of Victim Services in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, she created the Crisis Assistance and Response to Empower (CARE) model that raised nearly $2 million and reduced the growing number of gun crimes while providing 15 full-time jobs to formerly unemployed Philadelphians.
And she continued to benefit the city in general and West Philly’s 190th District in particular when she was elected as a state representative in March.
In that legislative role, she was a vocal and substantive supporter of Black folks, poor folks, LGBTQ folks, union folks, and victimized folks.
Moreover, after being elected in March, she was instrumental in awarding her constituents with $1.7 million for City Avenue Special Services road construction, $330,000 for improvements in the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, $100,000 for enhancements at Smith Playground, and $61,000 for economic development in the Walnut Hill/60th and Spruce Street neighborhoods, and much more — all within the past two months.
The only persons who will lose by her resignation are the persons she served so diligently in the 190th District.
I’m not going to condemn Shapiro for doing his job as a prosecutor. But I surely hope it’s not true that Johnson-Harrell was caught in the crossfire between reformist/rebel District Attorney Larry Krasner who’s loved by progressives (and who hired Johnson-Harrell before her election and following her aggressive campaigning for him) and conservative/moderate Shapiro who’s loved by the FOP.
I also hope it’s not true, as reported by The Intercept on October 8, that “Officials working on behalf of… Shapiro pitched the Philadelphia Inquirer to be more critical of… Krasner, according to emails revealed through an open records request.”
The Inquirer on June 18 wrote, “Krasner’s office had actually increased the number of gun cases approved for prosecution despite criticism that his approach to criminal justice reform was too lenient.”
The Intercept then noted, “[That] coverage appeared to rankle officials at Shapiro’s office… [who contacted the Inquirer and] suggested that future coverage should show that Krasner’s policies were actually linked to increased crime, shootings, and homicides in the city.”
Once again, I hope that’s not true. I really hope Shapiro’s people weren’t trying to get the media to mislead the public about Krasner’s laudable goal of ending crime by seriously and effectively punishing the bad guys while rehabilitating and transforming the not-so-bad guys.
Apart from all of that, people have asked me why should Johnson-Harrell plead guilty if she’s so innocent. Well, as I already pointed out, she’s not completely innocent. Some of her conduct was criminal in that it was sloppy and careless, which, in criminal parlance, means reckless and negligent.
Moreover, she should plead guilty because, if she doesn’t, she could be “judicially lynched” since the trial would be held in Dauphin County where the population is a whopping 77 percent white and a mere 17 percent Black. Furthermore, the Muslim population there is less than one percent at 0.88.
As a Black person, as a Muslim, and as a woman in America — and certainly in Dauphin County — she has three strikes against her.
Therefore, she better take that guilty plea deal and eventually come back to Philly where she’s loved and respected and where she will continue to fight and win for all Philadelphians.
And besides, you can’t keep a good man down — I mean a good Black Muslim woman down.
Michael Coard, an attorney and talk show host, is a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune, where this piece first appeared.