Federal authorities have indicted U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah on political corruption charges.
The 20-year congressman is charged with racketeering, conspiracy, bribery, and other charges. Authorities say Fattah orchestrated a scheme to repay $600,000 of an illegal campaign loan using charitable and federal grant funds.
Prosecutors said the repayment was routed through two companies run by associates of Fattah. They also charge that Fattah tapped campaign funds to pay his son’s college debt and tried to get an ambassadorship for Herbert Vederman, a former deputy mayor of Philadelphia, in return for favors and gifts from Vederman.
“The public expects their elected officials to act with honesty and integrity,” said U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger. “The public does not expect their elected officials to misuse campaign funds, misappropriate government funds, accept bribes or commit bank fraud.”
Some of the allegations have appeared in earlier court filings, and Fattah has insisted he’s done nothing wrong.
In a statement Wednesday afternoon, Fattah said the indictment was the next step in “an eight-year effort by some in the Department of Justice to link my public service career to some form of wrongdoing.”
“As I have previously stated, I have never participated in any illegal activity or misappropriation of taxpayer dollars as an elected official,” Fattah said. “For the last 21 years, I have represented the people of Philadelphia in Congress with honor and dignity, helping millions of families through my efforts focused on education, employment, mortgage relief, and health care. I will proudly continue to serve my constituents and look forward to helping millions more.”
The congressman will step aside from his role as as ranking member on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science.
“This will not be a distraction from my service to the people that elected me, and I am confident that I will be cleared of these charges,” Fattah said.
The indictment does not require Fattah to step down from his seat in Congress. Members of the House are only forced to resign upon being sentenced for a crime.
Should Fattah decide or be forced to resign his seat, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf would have 10 days to schedule a special election to fill the unexpired term. The special election would be scheduled for at least 60 days later.
The 2nd Congressional District represented by Fattah covers big chunks of North, West and Northwest Philadelphia, and parts on Montgomery County.
Four others are charged, including Vederman; Fattah’s congressional district director, Bonnie Bowser; a former aide, Karen Nicholas; and Robert Brand, a campaign contributor whose wife also worked on the congressman’s staff. Vederman also served as a policy adviser to Ed Rendell In Harrisburg when Rendell was governor.
Rendell defended both Fattah and Vederman after the indictments came down Wednesday.
Fattah did a great deal for Philadelphia, Rendell said.
And Vederman “worked for eight years for the taxpayers of Philadelphia, literally seven days a week, 10, 12 hours a day, and never took a dime in salary,” said the former city mayor. “I can’t believe Herb did anything wrong.”
Another local congressman, Democrat Bob Brady, said he was surprised by Fattah’s indictment and that his absence on the appropriations subcommittee will hurt Philadelphia financially.
“I’m saddened and for his sake and his family, but it will possibly work out OK,” Brady said.
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter also expressed sorrow for Fattah and his family.
“He’s been a champion for children in the city,” Nutter said. “Congressman Fattah has helped more people go to college and graduate school than any other member of Congress.”
Asked if he would run should Fattah resign, Nutter said “it would be inappropriate and rude” to answer that.
The Philadelphia Republican Party struck a decidedly different note, as its executive director, Joe DeFelice, said in a statement:
“The arrogance of incumbency has led to the culture of corruption in Philadelphia. Congressman Fattah is just another in just the last year to be indicted for putting himself before the people he represents.”
The indictment says Fattah committed the alleged offenses while trying to pay back a $1 million loan to his unsuccessful 2007 campaign for mayor of Philadelphia. This was the first city election conducted under new campaign finance rules that put caps on individual contributions to candidates, in response to the pay-to-play scandals of the John Street administration.
Fattah had expected those rules to be overturned by the courts, which would make it easier for him to raise campaign funds in large chunks. When the rules were upheld and he began to stall in campaign polls, he was unable to bring in as much in contributions as he’d hoped.
Renee Chenault-Fattah, the NBC 10 news anchor who is married to the congressman, is not named in the indictment. But she does crop up in the narrative, referred to as Person E. Person E, according to prosecutors, had a role in arranging what the indictment claims was a fraudulent deal in which Vederman pretended to buy the couple’s Porsche for $18,000. She could not be reached for comment.
A spokeswoman for NBC10 declined to comment, but the network reported that Chenault-Fattah is on leave starting Wednesday.
Read our annotated version of the full indictment below.
WHYY’s Dave Davies, Tom MacDonald, Aaron Moselle, Katie Colaneri and Amy Quinn contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this story reported incorrectly the time frame for scheduling a special election in the event of a vacated House seat.