After more than a month of testimony, the fates of indicted U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah and his four co-defendants are now in the hands of a Philadelphia jury.
The high profile, federal corruption case wrapped up late Tuesday afternoon, but not before the government made its final pitch to jurors.
During his rebuttal, U.S. Justice Department attorney Eric Gibson addressed each defendant, and saved his most searing words for Fattah, whom prosecutors say quarterbacked the “white-collar crime spree” detailed in its indictment.
“The arrogance on display here is astonishing,” said Gibson. “In ‘Fattah World, ‘none of the rules that apply to anyone else have any application to the congressman.”
Fattah allegedly took an illegal $1 million loan to help his failed bid for Philadelphia mayor in 2007, then orchestrated the theft of federal grants and charitable donations to repay part of the loan.
Prosecutors also charge that Fattah sent recommendation letters to a senator and Obama administration staffers after being bribed by a wealthy friend hoping to become a U.S. ambassador; that he used campaign cash to help cover some of his son’s college loan debt; and encouraged a political consultant to set up a sham nonprofit to which the congressman could steer federal grants as part of an agreement to settle a campaign debt.
Fattah, who has maintained his innocence, has called the charges against him “frivolous.” And through dozens of witnesses and scads of evidence, the veteran lawmaker has appeared steadfast in court. He’s even grinned at times.
At one point Tuesday, Fattah popped into his mouth what appeared to be a cookie — a beat after Gibson emphatically pointed to the congressman while discussing the bribes he allegedly took from co-defendant Herbert Vederman.
Also charged under the indictment are Bonnie Bowser, a former chief of staff at Fattah’s congressional office in Philadelphia; Karen Nicholas, a former congressional staffer and CEO of the Educational Advancement Alliance, a nonprofit Fattah founded; and Robert Brand, founder of the for-profit organization Solutions for Progress.
Earlier, lawyers representing Bowser, Nicholas and Brand, delivered their closing arguments. They argued their clients weren’t aware of any of the illegal activities alleged by the government and that there’s no evidence to prove otherwise. To compensate, they said, prosecutors “cherry-picked” documents and facts to make their case.
“It’s just smoke and mirrors,” said Mira Baylson, who represents Brand.
Brand is accused of helping Fattah repay part of the illegal $1 million loan made to help his flailing mayoral campaign. Solutions for Progress, prosecutors argue, was used as a “pass through” to return $600,000 to wealthy executive Alfred Lord, who made the original loan.
The government alleges that $500,000 came from EAA and that Brand contributed the rest.
The transaction, which allegedly included stolen federal and charitable donations, was allegedly covered up, in part, with the help of a sham contract between EAA and Solutions.
During her closing, Baylson said the contract was legitimate and that work spelled out in it was, in fact, completed, including extensive research and a progress report.
The government alleges Brand executed another fake contract with LSG Strategies, the political consulting firm that allegedly transferred the $600,000 back to Lord.
Baylson told jurors that too was legal, and that Thomas Lindenfeld, who ran LSG, tricked Brand, “took advantage of him.”
“He was an easy target for such a savvy, political operative,” said Baylson.
Lindenfeld testified at trial after pleading guilty.
Nicholas is also accused of participating in the loan repayment scheme. She also allegedly secured federal grants for an education conference that never happened, and then spent the money on herself and a political consultant in Fattah’s inner circle.
Anne Flannery, Nicholas’ lawyer said the allegations connected to the conference boiled down to a “complete misunderstanding” between Nicholas and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency that awarded the grant.
Bowser, who also served the treasurer during Fattah’s mayoral campaign, is accused of repeatedly falsifying campaign finance reports to hide loans and sham contracts, and reflect undocumented agreements.
Ronald Levine, Bowser’s attorney, said his client loyally carried out tasks handed down to her from powerful people “higher in the food chain” and didn’t knowingly commit any crimes because she was never filled in on any of the alleged schemes, especially the loan repayment.
“Doesn’t the evidence simply show a treasurer doing her job,” Levine asked jurors.
“This will be the first racketeering case where the compliance person is accused of being a fraudster.”
Jurors are expected to begin poring over the details of the federal corruption case sometime Wednesday.