You’d think this would be obvious by now, but apparently not: Taxpayer dollars can’t be spent on fur coats, facials and fancy dinners.
That lesson has been learned anew by Joyce Levitt, a former chief financial officer at Visit Philadelphia, who has been charged with felony counts of theft, forgery and fraud for allegedly embezzling $200,000 from the tourism agency between 2005 and 2012.
“These are taxpayer dollars. The money belongs to the public,” District Attorney Seth Williams said during a press conference this morning announcing the charges against Levitt.
Williams said he was spurred to launch an investigation into Levitt after Inquirer reporter Chris Hepp wrote an article in 2014 that exposed Levitt’s alleged embezzlement scam — and a secret agreement she reached with Visit Philadelphia to repay the money. The case was handed to a grand jury in 2015.
Levitt, who was hired by Visit Philadelphia CEO Meryl Levitz in 2003, was tasked with monitoring the agency’s cash flow, compiling its financial statements, and monitoring the city’s hotel tax, which is the agency’s prime source of revenue. (Visit Philadelphia will receive $11 million — 18 percent of the hotel tax — for fiscal year 2015, according to the D.A.’s Office.)
The grand jury alleges that Levitt, 61, went to town on a corporate credit card, spending $34,000 on meals at high-end restaurants; $18,743 at BJ’s and Costco; $16,084 on American Express gift cards; $4,106 at a South Jersey skin care facility; and $1,567 on a furrier in New York.
According to the grand jury, Levitt also used corporate checks to pay for personal Visa bills — to the tune of $83,632 — and hired her best friend, Rochelle Silverman, as an independent contractor. The two traveled to Europe and Mexico. Levitt put the hotel and plane fares on the corporate credit card, according to the grand jury’s report.
It was a helluva scam that went unnoticed for years, even though Levitt routinely failed to submit required documentation for her expenses. The grand jury noted that Levitz had issues with Levitt’s performance as the CFO, and was aware that Levitt continually didn’t file paperwork for her expenses, but didn’t move to fire her.
“However, it is clear that had Levitz taken the time to review Levitt’s monthly AMEX statements, and their lack of accompanying receipts and PAF’s [purchase authorization form], she would have discovered that as early as 2006, Levitt was misusing her corporate credit card for personal benefit,” the grand jury wrote.
Levitt’s alleged embezzlement was finally discovered during an annual audit in 2011. Williams said Levitt was caught trying to manipulate a BJ’s invoice receipt on her work computer remotely after being confronted about missing receipts and statements.
In February 2012, Levitt resigned, and was allowed to collect unemployment. Six months later, she reached a confidential agreement with Visit Philadelphia to repay the $200,000, plus another $10,000 in interest. In return, the agency agreed not to alert authorities to the long-running scam.
Williams said the restitution didn’t change the fact that a crime may have been committed. “As an agency that receives public taxpayer money, [Visit Philadelphia] had a duty to citizens to report Levitt’s theft,” he said.
Visit Philadelphia released a statement today that read:
“Visit Philadelphia appreciates the district attorney’s watchfulness and follow-up on our own discovery of the misappropriation through our own auditing procedures in 2012.
Upon discovery, we took immediate action and engaged legal counsel who advised us that our primary responsibility was to make the organization financially whole as soon as possible. We engaged experienced forensic auditors who determined the amount, and we were repaid in full five months after the discovery.
Throughout this process, we remained laser focused on our mission of building Greater Philadelphia’s image, driving visitation and boosting the economy.”
Williams said Visit Philadelphia could benefit from stricter oversight.
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