Let’s get hypothetical.
U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah’s federal corruption trial is scheduled for six days after April’s Democratic primary — the election, given the district’s lopsided voter registration, that will effectively crown its next congressman.
The timing means that if Fattah tops the four-man field, he could be the party’s nominee and, if a jury finds him guilty, a convicted felon months before the general election in November.
That unusual status could be short or long-lived.
Election law attorney Kevin Greenberg said most convicted politicians typically resign soon after the fact.
“The peer pressure from his fellow of members of Congress, his friends who he’s worked with for 20 years to not embarrass them, to not bring stain upon the House of Representatives, would be quite great,” said Greenberg.
But Fattah wouldn’t have to bow out — even after sentencing. Nothing in the U.S. Constitution requires convicted lamakers to automatically leave office.
Technically, Fattah could remain on the November ballot and even win another term.
Stranger things have happened. In 1798, Vermont Congressman Matthew Lyon was re-elected while in jail following his conviction under the Alien and Sedition Acts.
He handily beat his opponent and went on to serve two more terms in Congress after moving to Kentucky.
The House, however, would likely vote to remove Fattah from Congress, leaving the district without a representative.
“We all hope that if he is not convicted that we don’t have this problem, and, if he is convicted, that he steps down and we don’t have this problem. It does no one any good to have a convicted person serving in Congress,” said Greenberg.
Resignation would initiate secret selection process
If Fattah chooses to resign, party leaders from the 2nd Congressional District would caucus and choose a replacement for the general election, though U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, Philadelphia’s Democratic Party chairman, would likely have some serious say in the matter.
The district includes parts of Northwest, West and North Philadelphia, as well as most of Lower Merion Township in Montgomery County.
The selection process is private — “the ultimate smoke-filled room,” according to Philadelphia election lawyer Adam Bonin.
It’s also high-stakes.
“You’re choosing a member of Congress in the safest of safe Democratic districts and someone who could hold that seat and hold power for decades,” said Bonin.
Fattah could withdraw from the general election all the way up until ballots are printed and distributed. That and other election mechanics are typically set in stone 20 to 45 days before voters head to the polls, in this case, around mid-September.
Fattah, who maintains his innocence, doesn’t expect things to get that far. His lawyers don’t either.
“We expect that he’ll be vindicated,” said Sam Silver, one of three attorneys representing the 11-term congressman.
Fattah’s trial is slated for May 2 and could take a couple months to complete.
He is charged with racketeering, bribery, wire fraud and other offenses for allegedly misusing hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, public funds, and charitable donations.
In the alleged scheme at the heart of the case, Fattah is accused of using a pair of nonprofits he founded to help repay part of an illegal $1 million loan made to assist his unsuccessful 2007 mayoral campaign.
State Rep. Dwight Evans, Philadelphia ward leader Dan Muroff and Lower Merion Township Commissioner Brian Gordon are also running to replace Fattah.