A jury was given a preview on Friday of what to expect over the next couple weeks as Chaka “Chip” Fattah Jr. delivered opening statements in his federal trial. The Philadelphia entrepreneur stands accused of lying to get business loans, cheating on his taxes and stealing taxpayer money.
“The government’s whole case is based on speculation,” said the 33-year-old Fattah, who is not an attorney but is representing himself against the federal fraud and theft charges. “I’m an entrepreneur. I took a camera and made $100,000. The government is criticizing me for trying to figure out how to make money.”
Fattah, the son of U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah of Philadelphia, who is also being federally prosecuted in a separate corruption case, referred to money he said he made while operating a company known as 259 Strategies. The broad-based consulting firm, he said, did everything from shooting photos of concerts, providing concierge services and operating education programs.
Federal prosecutors charge that, over the course of eight years, Fattah falsified loan applications under that company name to receive more then $200,000 in “working capital” that he instead squandered away on a BMW, clothing, gambling and other personal expenses.
What’s more, Fattah is charged with theft for allegedly pocketing $100,000 intended to fund a disciplinary program for at-risk students through the Philadelphia School District. A company Fattah operated was awarded a contract to help oversee the federally funded program. But, according to prosecutors, he made up expense reports and inflated his staff salaries to bring himself more cash.
During the prosecution’s opening statements, it was noted that federal agents obtained a phone conversation in which Fattah calls his arrangement with the school district “a beautiful thing.”
“There’s nothing beautiful about stealing the school district’s funds, especially when it’s supposed to go to disadvantaged kids,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Gray.
‘I did nothing wrong’
“I never did anything in any way to harm the Philadelphia School District,” Fattah later said in his own opening statement, where he addressed some of the 23 counts against him.
Several times during opening remarks, federal prosecutors and Fattah conferenced with the judge about the relevancy of Fattah’s comments and whether he was following procedure. Federal public defender Nina Spizer, who sat at Fattah’s table, joined those conversations.
Quoting a recording that will be played later in the trial, federal prosecutors noted that Fattah said this of his business activities, “It’s about how to make money and have fun … it is what it is.”
What it really is, prosecutors said, is a crime.
“What I’m saying is, in broad strokes, I did nothing wrong,” said Fattah, who came to the WHYY studio during the lunch break of the first day of his trial.
“There may be some minor issues regarding the tax returns where something wasn’t accurate, or a minor issue on a loan application where something wasn’t accurate, but what the government has to prove in this case is that it was done intentionally.”
Prosecutors, Fattah said, are attacking him for being a savvy entrepreneur. He said there was nothing regrettable about living in a $600,000 condo in the Ritz-Carlton while he was a school district subcontractor.
“I’m not saying I didn’t like living at the Ritz, let’s be clear. I have a good lifestyle, or I had one, let’s put it that way,” he said.
He said representing himself is about taking control of his life.
“It’s very difficult to talk to other people, especially when you don’t have money,” Fattah said. “If this goes wrong, how’s it good if I’m sitting at a table and it goes wrong and I didn’t say anything? You know? I’m just gonna sit back and let it go?”
If the jury convicts Fattah of all charges, prosecutors said, he faces “substantial” prison time.