Fattah decries federal probe, plans to serve another decade in D.C.

 U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah started his Tuesday schedule at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Manayunk Bridge Trail project that he helped facilitate. (Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah started his Tuesday schedule at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Manayunk Bridge Trail project that he helped facilitate. (Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

A bicycle-path groundbreaking in Manayunk.

Roundtable discussions about health insurance for youths at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and Ebola readiness at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children.

A keynote speech at the National Association of State Head Injury Administrator’s conference in Center City.

 

That’s how 10-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah spent the Tuesday before voters will head to the polls and decide whether their seemingly embattled representative will return to Washington, D.C. for an 11th two-year spell.

He welcomed NewsWorks to tag along for the day to discuss his political past, present and future, speaking openly for several hours about the scrutiny both he and his son currently face and his ongoing legislative agenda.

And if the former had him worried about his political future, he did a good job of hiding it.

“I don’t think I’m in electoral danger,” he said, not once over the course of six hours betraying a hint of concern about a potential Election Day loss.

Scene setting

If all goes as expected, Fattah will retain his seat after facing relatively unknown Republican challenger Armond James in next week’s second congressional-district general election. (Update: The Inquirer endorsed James in the race this week.)

Using history as a guide, it shouldn’t even be close.

In five campaigns between 2004 and 2012, Fattah’s vote count ranged from 88 percent (’04) to 89.3 percent (’10 and ’12).

Fattah said those numbers are representative of the largest margins of victory in U.S. election history. And, they’ve come despite an ongoing federal investigation dating back to the 2007 mayoral primary, in which Fattah finished fourth in the five-candidate race won by Michael Nutter.

In a late August plea deal signed by former political aide Greg Naylor, federal prosecutors alleged “Elected Offical A” — Fattah — arranged an illegal campaign contribution.

It also alleged that Fattah, along with others, “orchestrated the theft of federal grant funds and other grant funds to repay the outstanding balance of the campaign debt.”

Several times throughout the day, Fattah reiterated that he has never “been involved in any illegal conduct — period” during his time as an elected official.

“What did they say I did? That, back in 2007, I had a conversation with someone?” he said dismissively of what he considers the plea agreement’s foggy-at-best accusations.

“[Investigators] should have the answers they need by now,” he said. “All I can do is just go about the work I’ve intended to do for the past 10 terms, and the work I intend to do for the next 10 years.”

Aside from being discussed in the SUV that carried him and new chief of staff Roger Jackson between Tuesday’s appearances, nobody he encountered at scheduled events, on the streets or in a University City burger joint made even a fleeting reference to it. That bolstered his sense that it won’t come into play when votes are counted.

What else didn’t happen? The candidate asking anyone for their votes next week.

On the non-campaign trail

After pulling over along Main Street in Manayunk to take a conference call regarding a U.S. House Appropriations matter with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Fattah said millions of people have benefitted from his work as a legislator.

He cited both big-picture items like the GEAR UP college-readiness program, the American Opportunity Tax Credit and his Neuroscience Initiative.

Also mentioned were smaller-ticket items like the Philadelphia Zoo’s new-ish parking garage, Mt. Airy U.S.A., streetscape and parking developments, the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk and Germantown’s Center in the Park’s computer lab.

“All of these people who want to criticize me can’t come within helping 50 million of the number of people I’ve helped,” he said. “That’s what holds the support of my base. I win, and people get help. That makes it a lot easier to get out of bed in the morning.”

At the Manayunk Bridge Trail groundbreaking event, he was cited as someone who united city and suburban officials to make the development a reality.

After shovels moved ceremonial dirt, a man in bicycle gear walked over to thank Fattah for his work to boost funding for Alzheimer’s disease research. It’d touched his family, he said.

“The World Health Organization says about one billion people are affected by neurological disorders. The idea that I get a chance to do something on that front is important to me,” he said, noting that his two daily check-ins with staff involve neurological and constituent-services issues. “I’m excited about doing this work every day.”

At the hospital roundtables, attendees respectively thanked Fattah for his work on behalf of the Children’s Health Insurance Program and interest in how they’re dealing with ever-shifting Ebola readiness protocols.

On the never-ending probe

En route from Manayunk to CHOP, Fattah was asked whether he thought his namesake son’s theft and tax-fraud indictment was part of an ongoing push to make a case against him.

“One-hundred percent,” he said, claiming as evidence the fact that press releases didn’t point out Fattah Jr. faces 411 years in prison, a tidbit that normally makes its way into the media’s hands. “I think my son will be fine, that he’ll be vindicated one day.

“Holding me to a higher standard, that’s fair game. But, the idea that they’d go after my family to try and get me, it speaks to their overzealousness. These people are just out to get me.”

While not willing to get specific — he said that without specific accusations to respond to, it’d be foolish to do so — Fattah said he believes the investigation of his activities “has stepped over a line from improper to illegal.”

Amid a series of investigations of members of the House Appropriations Committee, all have been wrapped up except his, Fattah noted, adding that it’s fair to vet legislators with that much input on financial matters.

“Yes, I do have concerns,” he continued. “There are rules that have to be followed and I have reason to believe that, in this instance, that they haven’t been following them.”

Looking ahead

Asked how he thinks the future will play out with Naylor’s plea deal seemingly setting a stage for future charges — the congressman referenced research into false confessions when asked about it directly — Fattah took a long-term view.

Having scant competition in previous races has enabled him to focus on heftier issues, as opposed to grasping onto hot-button topics that help sway every-other-year re-election pushes.

He said he looks at his career in 10-year intervals since issues like the Neuroscience Initiative warrant that length of commitment.

Finishing up a cheeseburger at Bobby’s Burger Palace in University City, the nearly 58-year-old said he and his wife recently discussed it and this likely re-election will mark the start of the final 10-year run in public office.

He’s asked to predict how the looming uncertaintly will play out in coming months and years.

“I know how this all plays out for me,” he said. “Since there’s been no illegal conduct on my part, I am fully committed to representing this district for another decade.”

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