Fattah sets up legal fund for corruption case

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     U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah leaves the federal courthouse in Center City, Philadelphia, after pleading not guilty to racketeering charges in August 2015 (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah leaves the federal courthouse in Center City, Philadelphia, after pleading not guilty to racketeering charges in August 2015 (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    If you want to help Philadelphia Congressman Chaka Fattah out with his legal bills as he battles federal corruption charges, there’s a new, quick and easy way to do it.

    Fattah’s taken advantage of a practice employed by other members in legal trouble (and governed by the House Ethics Committee) and has set up a legal defense fund. It has to report its donors quarterly, but it allows Fattah to tap a broader base of donors than his regular campaign committee.

    “This could be any corporation, any business, any church, any organization that you could imagine can legally give to the legal fund,” Fattah said in a telephone interview.

    Fattah said he has to raise money to even the playing field in his battle with federal prosecutors.

    “There’s two teams, right? On the other side, for the better part of a decade, well over $10 million has been spent to cobble together some charges,” Fattah told me. “But even when you have what is called frivolous litigation, it can be expensive.”

    The $10 million figure is an estimate by Fattah. The U.S. Attorney’s office declined to respond to his comments, but prosecutors have said the investigation into him is far more recent.

    Fattah said he’s reached an agreement with his attorneys to limit costs in the case, and expects to keep his legal bills under $1 million. Believe it or not, that’s probably a bargain, given the seriousness of the charges and the complexity of his case.

    How to fund a legal fight

    Public officials can use their campaign funds to pay their legal bills, and Fattah has tapped his for this case. A legal defense fund is arguably cleaner, since donors know they’re helping the congressman out of a jam, rather than giving to his campaign.

    Stanley Brand, a Washington-based defense attorney experienced in these cases, said there’s more than one way to look at it.

    “I guess from a practicioner’s standpoint and as someone who’s been a recipient of those monies myself, I always think it’s easier to raise campaign money, and then explain to people that this is obviously critical to your being re-elected to defend yourself against these charges,” Brand said.

    Donations to a legal fund are limited to $5,000 per year per donor, nearly twice the $2,700 limit for individual campaign contributions. Lobbyists are prohibited from contributing.

    Noah Bookbinder, executive director of the watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the truth is that politicians look to core supporters for all kinds of help.

    “This allows them to hit up the same people multiple times because they can max out their campaign donations and then max out their legal fund donations,” Bookbinder said.

    Bookbinder finds it a little curious that Fattah placed the donation links for his defense fund and his campaign fund on the same web page.

    Fattah says this way his supporters can choose how they want to help, since he does plan to run for re-election next year.

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