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From the archives 2021

Pa. state lawmaker from Delaware County charged with theft after years-long investigation

by Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA and Vinny Vella of The Philadelphia Inquirer |

Rep. Margo Davidson
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Philadelphia Inquirer

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HARRISBURG — A Delaware County state lawmaker has been charged with theft and other crimes following a years-long investigation into allegations that she misused campaign and taxpayer funds when seeking reimbursement for expenses.

Charges brought by the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office against Rep. Margo L. Davidson, a Democrat serving Upper Darby and the surrounding communities, revolve around expense reimbursements she received between 2015 and 2019.

Prosecutors said Davidson allegedly requested overnight reimbursements for time she did not actually spend in Harrisburg. Those reimbursements, known as per diems, are given to most Pennsylvania legislators when they travel to the Capitol from their home districts.

The attorney general’s office also said Davidson was personally reimbursed by taxpayers for expenses that had already been paid for by her campaign. Investigators said she also failed to disclose what they called “suspicious” campaign expenditures on mandated reports and, at one point during the probe, tried to direct a witness to lie on her behalf.

Davidson, 58, could not be reached for comment.

But in a letter to constituents, Davidson said she would resign, noting that she was accepting responsibility for her actions and regretted not “fully participating” in the investigation.

“As I end this chapter, I can say with all assurance that you may have other representatives, but none that will love you more,” she said. “I was a voice and an advocate for underrepresented communities long before I was in the legislature, as I was in it, and I will be a voice for my community long after this day.”

Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in a statement Davidson waived her preliminary hearing and has paid $6,925 in restitution.

Davidson became the first Black woman elected to the state House from Delaware County more than a decade ago and the first Democrat to win the 164th District in 40 years. She took over the seat held by Republican Mario Civera, the incumbent since 1980.

Her ascendance became the first indication of what would become a major political shift in historically deep-red Delaware County. Ten years later, the former Republican stronghold is now governed by an all-Democrat county council.

“She was dedicated to her constituents and always fought her hardest for those in need in Delaware County,” House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia) said in a statement.

“I am saddened by these charges,” she continued, adding that Davidson’s office will remain open to serve constituents.

As of the close of business Thursday, Davidson had not submitted a letter of resignation to House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster). Cutler can schedule a special election to fill her seat after he receives formal notification.

The allegations against Davidson in many ways showcase how easy it can be to take advantage of Pennsylvania’s lax campaign finance laws, as well as its generous perks for state legislators.

Lawmakers can receive a flat-rate reimbursement, called a per diem, every time they travel more than 50 miles outside their district. The reimbursement amount, which in recent years has ranged between $178 and $200, is meant to cover meals and lodging.

But lawmakers do not have to submit receipts to prove that they spent that much — or any money at all, as prosecutors are alleging in the criminal complaint against Davidson.

The complaint states that nearly a third of her per diem reimbursements for hotel stays in Harrisburg from 2017 through 2019 were fraudulent. The attorney general alleged that Davidson either had not stayed overnight in Harrisburg, as she had claimed, or she had already been reimbursed for the stay through her campaign account.

Investigators said they were able to pinpoint the fraud through, among other documents, Davidson’s cell phone records, which showed she was placing calls from near her Delaware County district on nights she claimed she was staying over in Harrisburg.

Investigators also combed through Davidson’s campaign reports, which they say showed she sometimes double-dipped when filing expenses, at times charging her campaign for the same hotel stays for which she was receiving a taxpayer-funded per diem.

In other instances, Davidson charged expenses to her campaign account that she either misrepresented or delayed reporting on campaign finance reports, they alleged.

Special Agent Matthew Smith, who signed the criminal complaint against Davidson, said that in October 2015, the lawmaker charged her campaign for a $1,030.51 stay at a Virginia inn. Smith said she didn’t report the expense until a year later, after facing a tough primary challenge.

In August 2017, according to the criminal complaint, Davidson used her campaign credit card for a $600 purchase at a woman’s clothing store but then claimed on campaign finance reports that it was to pay herself back for a loan she had made to her campaign.

In all, Smith said he uncovered more than $8,000 in campaign expenses that Davidson had not disclosed or falsely reported. Most of the unreported expenditures were in the form of 18 cash withdrawals, he said.

Davidson now faces one count each of theft by deception and solicitation to hinder apprehension, as well as Election Code violations.

A West Philadelphia native, Davidson’s tenure in the state House has been marked with some controversy. In 2018, she drew headlines for being arrested twice in 12 days for driving and crashing a taxpayer-funded vehicle while her license was suspended. Davidson said she didn’t know her license was suspended until State Police troopers notified her at the site of the second crash. She later pleaded guilty to the charges, which were all summary offenses.

As a legislator, some of her policies have garnered similar attention. Her early-on votes for increased restrictions on abortion clinics and school vouchers raised eyebrows in Democratic circles and saw her later opponents for reelection cast her as being against progressive values.

She defended her abortion voting record by pointing to the death of a cousin, who she said was killed in a clinic run by Philadelphia doctor Kermit Gosnell, and she held tightly to the seat. Her name was whispered in some circles ahead of the 2014 state gubernatorial election as a possible candidate for lieutenant governor, though that bid never came to fruition.

Davidson did throw her hat into the 2018 race for the then-newly created 5th Congressional District, but she mustered a scant 2,000 votes in the primary won by Mary Gay Scanlon.

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