Fattah legal fund raises questions

    In the movie “Dumb and Dumber,” the numbskulls played Jim Carey and Jeff Daniels find a suitcase of money they know isn’t theirs. After getting a fancy hotel suite and buying a Lamborghini, they say they’ve kept careful track of their spending and plan to pay it all back.


    I hope “Chip” Fattah is keeping track just as carefully of all the money he’s costing his family.

    We learned in Sunday’s Inquirer that U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah has prevailed on some powerful friends — former Mayors Ed Rendell and Wilson Goode Sr. — to help raise money to cover his son’s legal bills.

    Chaka Fattah Jr. has racked up a lot of IOUs, including $16,000 in gambling debts, and is involved in a federal investigation of his finances. Fattah Jr., known to friends as Chip, hasn’t been charged with wrongdoing, and his supporters say he’s cooperating with authorities.

    Rendell and Goode have sent a letter asking friends and Fattah supporters to donate to a legal fund for Fattah Jr.

    Nice gesture, but this can get into an ethically sticky area, says John Dunbar of the Center for Public Integrity. Political contributions are subject to limits, and have to be publicly reported, Dunbar said. Contributions to a private fund benefiting the relative of an elected official aren’t.

    “There are a million different ways of influencing politicians, and about 99 percent of them are legal,” Dunbar said. “This is definitely one of the more imaginative I’ve heard of.”

    George Burrell, the trustee of the fund, told me the donors will be disclosed, though the details haven’t been worked out.

    Burrell said the group initially thought of keeping donors secret from everyone, including Congressman Fattah, but decided the better course was disclosure.

    I asked Rendell if, when he was mayor or governor, it would have been proper for supporters to raise money for a fund benefiting a member of his family.

    He said he understood the issue.

    “That’s why our goal is to get a lot of people to make relatively modest contributions, so nobody is putting up $25,000 or $50,000,” he said.

    I guess we’ll see how that worked out when the fund discloses its donors.

    When I asked, Rendell shared a copy of the fundraising letter. It tells donors that “the need is great and … any amount you could give will be greatly appreciated.”

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal