- Associated Press - Thursday, March 17, 2016

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - A grand jury report says negligence by the head of the Philadelphia-area tourism bureau helped enable a former chief financial officer to embezzle $200,000.

A spokeswoman for Visit Philadelphia said Thursday the grand jury was inaccurate in asserting CEO Meryl Levitz knew about inaccurate accounting but didn’t address it.

“Meryl did not ignore the problem. It was well hidden from her,” said Paula Butler, the bureau’s vice president of communications. “As soon as Meryl knew about it, (chief financial officer) Joyce Levitt’s card was canceled. Visit Philadelphia has always had good controls.”

The grand jury wrote: “It was Levitz’s negligence and the city’s lack of oversight that led to Levitt’s continuous embezzlement.”

Levitt, 61, faces felony charges of fraud, theft and forgery. She oversaw the finances of Visit Philadelphia, which promotes travel to southeastern Pennsylvania and gets most of its money from the city’s hotel tax. Levitt’s responsibilities included monitoring the tax income and cash flow and compiling financial statements.

Levitt turned herself in Wednesday. No attorney was listed for her Thursday in online court documents.

Prosecutors said she spent the money on fancy dinners, skin care regimens and a New York furrier.

The DA’s office began investigating after a newspaper reported that Levitt was allowed to quietly resign in 2012 and return the money. Levitt told The Philadelphia Inquirer in July 2014 that she had resigned after “a disagreement over how money was being spent.”

District Attorney Seth Williams told the Inquirer that the restitution still did not leave Visit Philadelphia whole. The 2011 audit that uncovered the theft cost $100,000, and the attorney Visit Philadelphia hired to negotiate her resignation was paid $108,908, according to the grand jury report.

Butler said Thursday the forensic audit would have cost the agency $100,000 regardless of any course of action they took. She also said it was unlikely they would have gotten the $200,000 back if they prosecuted Levitt. She said that half the legal fees “came as a result of the inquiries resulting from press coverage.”

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