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‘From here, for here’: Indicted Councilman Kenyatta Johnson proclaims innocence to crowd of supporters

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Philadelphia City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson is surrounded by supporters at a press conference where he declares his innocence after the announcement on Wednesday of federal corruption charges against him and his wife. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson is surrounded by supporters at a press conference where he declares his innocence after the announcement on Wednesday of federal corruption charges against him and his wife. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Hours after federal prosecutors indicted him on charges of corruption, Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson promised a recreation center packed with supporters that he would fight the allegations — and keep working for his Point Breeze community.

Despite the late January chill outside, the Wharton Square Park rec center room was stiflingly hot as longtime allies and area residents shouted their love for the council representative. Some chanted a slogan from his recently concluded re-election campaign “From Here, For Here,” a reference to his lifelong residence in the South Philadelphia neighborhood.

“I want to thank all of you for being here, as I address the allegations from overzealous U.S. attorneys,” said Johnson, “I’ll be pleading not guilty and I’ll be fighting to clear my name. The process over the whole five years has been nothing but intimidation and bullying.”

Johnson and his wife Dawn Chavous were each charged with two counts of fraud in a complex case that centers on the activities of nonprofit developer and charter school operator Universal Companies, founded by local R&B legend Kenny Gamble.

Federal prosecutors charged former Universal CEO Abdur Rahim Islam and company CFO Shahied Dawan with racketeering, fraud and theft. Their case argues that Universal employed Chavous as a consultant in exchange for Johnson’s help on city zoning matters related to real estate deals that proved lucrative for the company.

Johnson called the charges against Chavous insulting: “I don’t need to help my wife,” he said, “Everyone knows I married up!”

Chavous did not attend the press conference but her lawyer, Barry Gross, characterized the charges against her as demeaning.

“The charges are wrong, offensive and downright sexist,” said Gross, of the Center City firm Drinker Biddle & Reath. “If people want to know where Dawn Chavous is right now, well, she’s working.”

She is “a graduate of Ursinus College who also holds a master of science from the University of Pennsylvania and … is a recognized expert in the field of charter schools and school choice,” Gross said.

Johnson’s district is diverse, stretching from Southwest Philadelphia across the Schuylkill River to profoundly redeveloped southwestern Center City through the longtime African-American neighborhood of Point Breeze, and down into the deep South Philadelphia communities of Girard Estates and Packer Park. He’s faced challenges in all three of the Democratic primaries he’s run in, winning the last two by large margins.

Many of Johnson’s supporters pointed to his deep ties in the community, as a lifelong Point Breeze resident who stayed and fought for his neighborhood.

“He cares about the community. He’s getting things done for us and he’s right here with us,” said Rev. Dr. Beverly Wylie-Smith of Blessed to be a Blessing Outreach Ministries. “He didn’t move away and leave us. He’s right here with us.”

Bishop James Darrell Robinson of Yesha Ministries at 23rd Street and Snyder Avenue spoke at the microphone after Johnson and denounced the federal case as taxpayer dollars wasted on a defamation campaign.

“He has limited resources. The criminal justice system has unlimited resources,” Robinson told WHYY. “Why did they kill Dr. King? Why did they eject Paul Robeson from the nation? Don’t ask me why they would do that. They’ve been doing it for years.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania had no comment about Johnson’s press conference or the aggressive denials of his team.

The charges against the couple relate to Universal’s attempted development at the Royal Theater on South Street, which is closer to City Hall than to Wharton Square Park. But Johnson’s supporters in Point Breeze moved past the technicalities of the case to focus on the good they say the Johnson has done for the community in the face of neighborhood changes that many have found destabilizing.

An influx of new development has dramatically reshaped the rowhouse blocks where Johnson and many of his allies grew up. Many of the vacant lots that dot the neighborhood are becoming filled with pricey new townhomes that often tower over the older brick homes.

The community has long been seen as a haven for working-class African American families. Point Breeze and bordering Graduate Hospital are two of the fastest gentrifying sections of the city.

Johnson’s relationships with the real estate developers that operate in his district are complex. He enjoys close ties with some businesses that donate heavily to his campaigns while clashing with others. Most notably, the councilmember’s relations with Ori Feibush are very tense, especially after the latter ran against him in the 2015 City Council race.  In 2016, Feibush bought the Royal Theater, the historic South Street venue at the center of federal prosecutor’s case.

Feibush’s name came up a couple of times during the rally, to a chorus of boos, and many of the attendees said they suspected real estate interests were somehow involved with the charges.

“I’ve been knowing Kenyatta since he was 17 years old. He’s my baby and I know that he is not a part of this fabrication by the developers,” said Vivian Burbage, a longtime resident of Point Breeze. “Team Johnson all the way.”

Johnson made clear that he will not be resigning and that he will be in City Council on Thursday.

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