U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pennsylvania, at a hearing Jan. 26, 2016. (P.J. D’Annunzio)
A federal jury Tuesday afternoon found U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pennsylvania, guilty on all charges against him.
The monthlong corruption trial in Philadelphia ended after roughly three days of deliberation. The jury returned guilty verdicts against Fattah and his co-defendants Herbert Vederman, Karen Nicholas, Robert Brand and Bonnie Bowser related to a racketeering scheme aimed at getting Fattah out of financial trouble.
Specifically, the jury found the congressman guilty of mail, wire and bank fraud; bribery; obstruction of justice; and money laundering.
Fattah told reporters outside of the courtroom that he and his lawyers would be going over his options.
“It’s a tough day,” Fattah said, “but I do want to thank the jurors for their service and after I confer with my counsel, we’ll figure out what our next steps are.” He declined to comment further.
At a press conference outside of the courthouse on the corner of Sixth and Market streets, U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger said the jury’s verdict sent a clear message that public corruption won’t be tolerated.
U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.Photo by P.J. D’Annunzio
“Chaka Fattah and his co-defendants betrayed the public trust and undermined our faith in government,” Memeger said. “Today’s verdict makes clear that the citizens of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania expect their public officials to act with honesty and integrity.”
He added, “Hopefully our elected officials in Philadelphia and elsewhere hear today’s message loud and clear.”
U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania continued the congressman’s bail and set sentencing for Oct. 4. Many of the charges Fattah was convicted of carry a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison.
Also convicted were Fattah’s co-defendants—Vederman, a wealthy friend and former Rendell administration deputy mayor, accused of bribing the congressman; Nicholas, the head of Fattah’s educational nonprofit, which under her watch was used to divert federal grant money from NOAA and NASA to satisfy debt from a $1 million loan to Fattah’s failed 2007 mayoral campaign; Bowser, Fattah’s chief of staff and campaign treasurer, charged with falsifying records to hide the flow of money; and Brand, the founder of the Solutions for Progress consulting firm, who used the firm to mask the repayment of Fattah’s campaign debt.
Fattah and his allies were indicted last July, originally on 29 counts, including Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act charges. Of those counts, 22 were directed at Fattah.
In addition to accusing the congressman of misappropriating federal grant money, authorities also alleged Vederman bribed Fattah in the hopes that the congressman could secure an ambassadorship for the former deputy mayor. Prosecutors said an $18,000 bribe was concealed through the sham sale of a Porsche driven by Fattah’s wife, former NBC 10 anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah.
Fattah also was accused of using campaign money to pay off his son Chaka “Chip” Fattah Jr.’s student loan debt. The younger Fattah is serving prison time after being convicted in his own bank fraud case in November.
Memeger said that the testimony of two cooperating witnesses for the government, Greg Naylor and Thomas Lindenfeld—political consultants and former campaign aides for Fattah’s mayoral bid who pleaded guilty to related charges—was critical in providing jurors with an “inside” view of the scheme. Defense lawyers argued during trial that the two were not credible, maintaining they were only testifying to get lighter sentences.
A recurring theme throughout the trial was debt and Fattah’s inability to raise money for his campaigns. Witnesses testified that the congressman was indebted to former Sallie Mae CEO Al Lord II for a $1 million loan, as well as a host of campaign vendors for everything from printing to legal consulting.
Fattah’s financial troubles also extended to the courtroom itself: the congressman’s original defense team was let out of the case in March after claiming he had stopped paying them.
At the time, Fattah said he would be devoting his resources to his upcoming congressional re-election bid before committing fully to his legal defense. The judge cautioned Fattah to check his priorities.
“I think the judge misunderstood, suggesting that I don’t take the matter seriously,” Fattah told reporters earlier in the year, “but one has to come before the other.”
The 11-term congressman went on to lose the April Democratic primary. Memeger on Tuesday declined to say whether he thought the congressman should step down before his sentencing. “It’s not my call,” he said, pointing to congressional procedures.
P.J. D’Annunzio can be contacted at ­215-557-2315 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @PJDannunzioTLI.