PHILADELPHIA (AP) — In his heyday, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah flew with the president on Air Force One, doled out millions in science and education grants from his perch on the House Appropriations Committee and graced galas back home in Philadelphia on the arm of his elegant TV anchor wife.
But on Tuesday June 14th, Fattah’s 30-year political career appeared to crater after a federal jury convicted him of laundering federal grants and nonprofit funds to repay an illegal $1 million campaign loan and help family and friends.
Fattah’s namesake son is already serving a five-year term in an overlapping bank fraud case that largely stemmed from the son’s excessive lifestyle. Chaka “Chip” Fattah Jr., a college dropout, lived in a Ritz Carlton condominium while holding himself out as a high-end concierge.
The father’s Achilles heel was not the luxe life so much as a losing game of political chess. Fattah decided in 2007 to return home and run for mayor, and he was the early favorite as the city’s longtime Democratic congressman. But his campaign hit a snag amid new campaign finance limits.
The jury found Tuesday June 14th that Fattah took the $1 million loan from former Sallie Mae chairman Albert Lord but nonetheless came in fourth in the primary. Fattah then found himself scrambling when Lord called in the debt.
He used federal grant money to repay some of the money, routing it through a campaign consultant, the jury found.
Two of Fattah’s political consultants, Gregory Naylor and Thomas Lindenfeld, pleaded guilty and testified against their former client. Fattah’s lawyers pinned the scheme on them.
“Well, it’s a tough day, but I do want to thank the jurors for their service,” Fattah, 59, said as he left the courtroom. He planned to discuss his options with lawyers but would not say if he would resign.
Fattah, raised by community activists in West Philadelphia, has been in Congress since 1995 after a decade in the Pennsylvania statehouse. He lost his April primary bid for a 12th term. His current term ends Jan. 2, two months after his Oct. 4 sentencing.
U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger pledged Tuesday June 14th seek jail time but did not say how much. House rules call for a convicted lawmaker to refrain from voting if they face more than two years in prison. The lead racketeering count alone carries a potential 20-year maximum, although the guideline range could be far lower.
Fattah had little reaction to the verdict in court, except for the bemused smile he frequently sports. Four co-defendants, including former staff members who worked on his campaign or an educational nonprofit he started, were convicted of at least some counts. Their lawyers declined to comment afterward.
Lawyers for the congressman acknowledged that he might have been in financial trouble after the costly mayor’s race, but they said any help from friends amounted to gifts, not bribes.
Many of them came from friend Herbert Vederman, who helped support Fattah’s South African nanny and paid $18,000 for Fattah’s wife’s Porsche so the couple could put money down on a Poconos vacation home. The car never left their garage. Vederman then pressed Fattah to help him land an ambassadorship.
“The nanny, the Porsche and the Poconos, they weren’t part of a bribery scheme,” Fattah lawyer Samuel Silver said in closing arguments. “Those were all overreaches by the prosecution.”
Fattah’s wife, Renee Chenault-Fattah, was never charged with wrongdoing and insisted the sale was legitimate. A longtime fixture in the Philadelphia news market, she left her job in February.
At least one political star agreed that the government had overplayed its hand in the case. Former Gov. Ed Rendell — a Democrat who testified for Vederman, his deputy when Rendell was mayor of Philadelphia — later said that prosecutors don’t understand how politics work.
“They think everything is done for ulterior motives. They’re very cynical,” Rendell said. “We’re not all bad. We’re not all evil.”
The jury nonetheless convicted Vederman, who now lives in Palm Beach, Florida, of bribery and racketeering.
The other convicted co-defendants are Bonnie Bowser, of Philadelphia, who ran his district office; Karen Nicholas, of Williamstown, New Jersey, who ran the education nonprofit Fattah started; and Robert Brand, of Philadelphia, a businessman married to a former Fattah staffer.
Fattah stepped down as the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee on commerce, justice and science when he was indicted last year.
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata in Washington contributed to this report.
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