Chaka Fattah federal corruption trial begins

Congressman Chaka Fattah answers questions outside the Federal Courthouse. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY

Congressman Chaka Fattah answers questions outside the Federal Courthouse. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY

Indicted U.S. Rep Chaka Fattah heads to federal court Monday for the start of a corruption trial that could net the veteran Philadelphia lawmaker a lengthy prison sentence if he’s convicted. 

Fattah, 59, is charged with racketeering, bribery, bank fraud and other offenses for allegedly misusing hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, grant money and charitable donations.

The dizzying 28-count indictment, announced in July 2015 details five alleged schemes that Fattah and four associates participated in for personal and political gain.

But an illegal $1 million loan made to Fattah’s failed mayoral campaign in 2007 sits at the center of the case.

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Federal prosecutors maintain that Fattah used a nonprofit he founded and a for-profit organization to which he has ties to repay part of the loan – the $600,000 the campaign did spend.

In that narrative, a lot of money allegedly passes through a lot of hands. There’s also a pretty big paper trail.

Former federal prosecutors say how the government outlines and explains it to jurors will be critical if they hope to get a conviction.

“If you go in and you have just a bunch of documents, the jury is going to be standing there saying, ‘what does this mean?’ Can you put some life in these documents? Do these documents tell a story that there was something wrong here and that these fellows intended to break the law?” said Peter Vaira, a former federal prosecutor.

It all starts with a particularly clear, well-organized opening argument, said white-collar litigator John Pease, who successfully prosecuted another powerful Philadelphia politician: former state Sen. Vince Fumo.

As the potentially two month-long case progresses, Pease said prosecutors would likely rely on summary evidence and summary witnesses to give jurors the dots they want them to connect by the end of trial.

“It’s going to be very difficult for jurors to remember a specific location or exhibit number or meaning of a particular check or transfer of wire payments,” said Pease.

Prosecutors also charge that Fattah used campaign funds to pay his son’s college debt and tried to get an ambassadorship for Herbert Vederman, a former deputy mayor of Philadelphia, in return for favors and gifts from Vederman.

Vederman is one of the four associates charged alongside Fattah. Fattah’s former chief of staff in his Philadelphia office Bonnie Bowser, former congressional aide Karen Nicholas and Robert Brand, a campaign contributor, are also co-defendants.

Fattah’s former chief of staff, Gregory Naylor and political consultant Tom Lindenfeld have previously pleaded guilty. It’s unclear if either will testify.

Whether Fattah, who maintains his innocence, will take the stand also remains a mystery.

Fattah’s wife, former NBC10 news anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah crops up in the indictment as “Person E,” but wasn’t charged by prosecutors. Chenault-Fattah allegedly had some involvement with a scheme involving the phony sale of a car to Vederman.

Criminal defense lawyer Christopher Warren said it could be tough for federal prosecutors to prove that Fattah and others worked together as a single “enterprise.”

“When a jury hears RICO, racketeering, their first thought is Michael Corleone, Al Pacino. They hear the theme from ‘The Godfather,'” said Warren.

“That’s essentially what the government is claiming here. They have the same sort of racketeering enterprise that the La Cosa Nostra is.”

Fattah has called the allegations filed against him “frivolous.” He personally faces 24 counts, all of which carry maximum prison sentences of at least 10 years.

“The problem for those who are trying to pull it off is that you’re not writing on or painting on a blank canvas. I have a very good reputation,” said Fattah prior to losing the Democratic primary in late April.

After more than two decades in office, Fattah’s political career will end in January. State Rep. Dwight Evans topped the four-man field and, given the Second Congressional District’s Democrat-rich voter rolls, is almost guaranteed victory in November.

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