Fattah’s risky bet

    I no longer have the patience for poker, but when I watch Philadelphia Congressman Chaka Fattah these days, I can’t help but see a fearless gambler playing a dangerous hand of Texas hold’em.

    Fattah goes to trial on federal corruption charges in May, just days after the April 26 Democratic primary, when he faces several determined opponents.

    His political career and his very freedom are on the line, but he confidently predicts victory on all fronts.

    It’s hard to know his chances, because we haven’t seen the government’s evidence against him. Like Texas hold’em, there are cards on the table that haven’t been turned over.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    But we know Fattah isn’t sitting with a tall stack of chips.

    He can’t afford to pay his criminal lawyers, and his campaign fund is practically empty.

    Some players might fold their hands — resign from office and cut a plea deal with the feds. Some Democrats have told me they think Fattah should do this.

    But he won’t, and he won’t be quiet about his intentions. All he needs is a cowboy hat and sunglasses to look like a World Series of Poker heavyweight.

    Taunting the fedsFattah publicly accuses federal prosecutors of misconduct and suggests they’re pursuing a decades-long vendetta against him and his family, with the full weight of the Justice Department and the federal treasury behind it.

    I’ve seen this anger before from public officials accused of corruption, including some who went to jail.

    Whatever their own misdeeds, they’re genuinely outraged at the government’s tactics — they bully and intimidate witnesses, the officials say, forcing lifelong friends of the accused to tell them what they want to hear to save their own necks.

    There are stories of egregious misconduct in criminal probes, most memorably the actions of Boston FBI agents who protected the notorious criminal James “Whitey” Bulger while advancing their careers.

    I imagine Fattah is convinced that any reasonable juror will see the government has acted in bad faith and is not to be believed.

    The problem to me is that the facts Fattah cites to show government misconduct are on the periphery of the case and don’t deal with the heart of the charges against him.

    He says prosecutors falsely claimed that the investigation against him began in 2012 when it’s clear they were gathering information about him long before that (he’s right about that).

    The alternate explanation is that the feds began by looking into other organizations or individuals,  which prompted them to ask for information about Fattah, even if he wasn’t then the target. So there’s a semantic question of when a given investigation “began.”

    And Fattah notes that an FBI agent has already admitted improper contact with an Inquirer reporter who helped the agent with information about charter schools and was rewarded with a tipoff when search warrants were served.

    That, in particular, doesn’t make the government look good.

    More to comeBut there are those other cards on the table we haven’t seen.

    The government says Fattah repaid $600,000 of an illegal campaign loan by tapping federal and charitable funds in a set of transactions among entities with connections to him. But we haven’t seen the evidence yet.

    If the cards are turned over, and the government produces a paper trail showing the $600,000 moved among these players (one of whom has pleaded guilty and is ready to testify), it will be interesting to hear Fattah’s explanation.

    Maybe he doesn’t need one. Maybe these other players decided to move the $600,000 among themselves, for legitimate reasons, and it had nothing to do with Fattah.

    Fattah told me in an interview a couple of weeks ago he’s going to show that there’s no case here.

    “This isn’t a case of where there’s a car accident and there’s a question of who’s at fault,” he said. “There was no accident. There was no crime here.”

    Fattah likes to tell of other politicians who’ve been indicted then acquitted or those who were driven from office by an investigation that became public but never led to any charges.

    There are also plenty of examples of the feds putting together corruption cases that stuck, despite the efforts of skilled lawyers to convince juries there was nothing to do.

    One involved former Philadelphia City Councilman Rick Mariano who said at one point in his case, “The feds don’t miss.”

    I don’t know what will happen when the jury is assembled and the cards in Fattah’s case are turned over.

    But he’s all-in.

    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