Fattah: Indictment allegations ‘a little bit of a stretch, to say the least’

 Last October, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah attended a groundbreaking ceremony for the Manayunk Bridge Trail project that he helped facilitate. (Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

Last October, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah attended a groundbreaking ceremony for the Manayunk Bridge Trail project that he helped facilitate. (Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

Back in October, as he was on the verge of coasting to yet-another reelection, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Phila.) decried the seemingly never-ending investigation that ultimately produced Wednesday’s bombshell racketeering-conspiracy indictment (PDF).

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

Nearly 10 months later, the embattled 11th-term congressman is sticking to that mantra despite finally learning of the racketeering, conspiracy, bribery and other charges against him.   The indictment handed up yesterday recounts an alleged scheme to repay $600,000 of an illegal 2007 mayoral-campaign loan using charitable and federal grant funds.

“As you can imagine, no lawyer would want me talking about the particulars, but it’s safe to say that we deny the allegations. Each of them. Each and all of them,” Fattah told NewsWorks on Thursday.

“There’s a courtroom where this will be vetted, and I was always confident that I’ve done nothing wrong and have been involved in no illegal activities or misappropriation of funds,” Fattah said. “I agree with U.S. Attorney on one point: These are just allegations and everyone involved is innocent” unless proven guilty.

Fattah saw positives emerge from Wednesday. Instead of being left to worry about whispered allegations, he saw the the government case laid out before him.

“To go from an investigative period of eight years to actual allegations is very helpful because it suggests an end of the road here,” he said, with the result being either exoneration or “in eyes of the other team, for me to go away.”

Before having to cut the call short so (irony alert) he could go receive the Advocate of the Year Award from U.S. Black Chambers Inc., Fattah scoffed at the indictment’s underpinnings.

“They say that it was all about an enterprise of criminal activity. Well, it would be the first in world history to help tens of millions of people. That was the cover for the enterprise? Helping people?” he said. “The notion that you get [former Philadelphia mob bosses Angelo] Bruno and [Nicky] Scarfo and Fattah is a little bit of a stretch to say the least.”

Needless to say, U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger took a different view of the facts in a news conference Wednesday, saying, “The public does not expect their elected officials to misuse campaign funds, misappropriate government funds, accept bribes or commit bank fraud.  These types of criminal acts betray the public trust and undermine faith in government.”

While ceding his House Appropriations Committee leadership position — due to “House precedent” — Fattah said he will continue “to do my work” (PDF).

However, he rued “the unfortunate reality” that just hours earlier, relatives were forced to nix previously scheduled events “due to all the media attention.”

“If I was getting nothing done and had to go through this, that would be one thing, but nobody can deny the work we’ve done despite the allegations,” he said. “The big picture for me is that this period of time has been my most effective in Congress.

“Anyone of thinks otherwise needs to be disabused of the notion that this will continue to go on for a while. [A possible trial] is at least a year away is what I’ve been told. But, every single day [before then], I’ll continue helping.”

Impact on the city, “machine”

As word of the indictment emerged on Wednesday, speculation turned to possible outcomes and, among other things, who could conceivably replace Fattah.

The more immediate questions, however, had to do with the impact on Fattah’s work itself (PDF) and his local “political machine.”

Larry Ceisler, a longtime political consultant and publisher of the website PoliticsPA, said Fattah’s at last temporary loss of Capitol Hill clout is significant: “It’s still very important for the city and the commonwealth to have members on Appropriations and other important committees.”

He shared a vignette from a recent trip to Israel to make this point.

“What Chaka has done in the last several years, to his credit, is take a keep interest in neuroscience, and it’s legitimate,” Ceisler said. “When I was in Israel six or seven weeks ago, going around and meeting with some  start ups, particularly in biotech, I heard Chaka’s name mentioned several times.tart

“They noticed his interest in research they’ve done over there, and partnering with firms and facilities. When you consider that the Philadelphia economy’s foundation is in ‘eds and meds,’ having a person on Appropriations with a keen interest in those is very important.”

However, the once-vaunted Fattah “election day machine” took a bit of a hit after the mayoral primary in 2007, the election loss to Michael Nutter that is at the heart of the indictment.

“I don’t know if it’s recovered,” said Ceisler, adding that Council members Curtis Jones Jr., Cindy Bass and Blondell Reynolds Brown, along with state Sen. Vincent Hughes “learned to do things on their own and make other alliances. The days [of the machine] are somewhat over and, to a certain extent, are a lot more hype there than what was reality. The presentment makes it look even worse.”

Dan Fee, a Democratic consultant who has worked with and against the Fattah machine, agreed that the 2007 primary was a turning point. However, Fattah’s vaunted get-out-the-vote operation could survive this indictment, he maintained.

Since former Fattah aide and Election Day wizard Gregory Naylor, who has already pleaded guilty in the case, was already in the process of moving aside, “you already have people who stepped up” to oversee Election Day activities.

“You still deal with the remnants of it,” Fee said. “You shouldn’t think of it as political leaders like Bass, Jones and Hughes. It’s still the staff people. It always has been.

“If you wanted the Fattah organization, you hired Greg Naylor, who would direct funding to all the entities. It never went through the Fattah campaign. With Greg stepping aside, entities that Greg used to give money to still exist. This survives. This may not be the best analogy, but if a king retires, there’s still an organization there.”

As for what happens from here, Ceisler doesn’t envision a scenario in which Fattah steps aside, despite what the Inquirer suggested in an editorial Thursday.

“The thing is, Chaka is a very determined guy. He’s not a defeatist. He’s the type of person who steers straight ahead,” Ceisler said. “Obviously, preparing for trial, or whatever is to come, has to be a distraction. One has to hope that even though he might not have positions on committees, he will still have some influence when it’s needed.”

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