Bribes or payments for service? Competing interpretations highlight start of Kenyatta Johnson corruption trial

Philadelphia City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Did Philadelphia City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson accept nearly $67,000 in bribes in exchange for helping a nonprofit developer and charter school operator maintain control of valuable real estate in his district?

Or did the Democrat take action because he believed it was in the best interest of his constituents — not his personal bank account?

Those were the competing narratives attorneys offered to jurors during their opening statements on Thursday, the first day of testimony in Johnson’s federal corruption trial, a case that could send the three-term Democrat to prison for decades.

“Bribery in the 21st century is not cash in a bag delivered in the middle of the night,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Gibson. “The nonprofit has to account for the money leaving its coffers and the public official does not want a paper trail.”

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Johnson’s fate could largely depend on what jurors decide about his wife and co-defendant, political consultant Dawn Chavous. Prosecutors say the bribe money Johnson allegedly received from Universal Companies was concealed as payments to Chavous’ consulting firm. And that Universal, led by co-defendants Abdur Rahim Islam and Shahied Dawan, only hired her company to funnel money to her husband.

“There won’t be any real substantive evidence of any real substantive work,” said Gibson.

Defense attorneys countered that claim in their opening statements, describing Chavous a “workaholic” who performed “hours and hours of work” for Universal during the 16 months she was on the nonprofit’s payroll between 2013 and 2014.

David Laigaie, who represents Islam, said Chavous’ main responsibility was spreading “the Universal story” to well-heeled institutions and wealthy individuals who supported the charter school movement, but not the nonprofit’s networks of charter schools in Philadelphia.

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In service of that mission, Chavous helped plan a 20th anniversary event for the organization, said Laigaie. Her job duties also saw her help Universal obtain charter school renewals from the School District of Philadelphia and navigate a tax credit program, among other responsibilities.

“She was well-known and well-respected and well-qualified to help Universal,” said Laigaie.

While previewing the case for jurors, prosecutors told the panel that Universal hired Chavous as the cash-strapped nonprofit struggled to redevelop the Royal Theater, a historic and crumbling property they initially acquired to transform into a new music venue. Gibson said the nonprofit had received offers to buy the building on South Street, but that they were all contingent on the nonprofit securing new zoning.

In 2014, following a meeting allegedly arranged by Chavous, Johnson introduced zoning legislation to alter parking requirements and height maximums for the theater. Prosecutors say Chavous deposited a $17,500 check — her largest payment from Universal — just days before that happened, supporting the government’s claim that the ordinance was “quid pro quo corruption.”

Johnson also allegedly stopped the city from reclaiming vacant land Universal owned on the 1300 block of Bainbridge Street. This occurred after the company violated its 2005 agreement with the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, which required Universal to build affordable housing on the land.

Prosecutors allege that Johnson told PRA officials he didn’t support the city’s reversion efforts shortly after Chavous alerted Islam, Universal’s former CEO. According to the indictment, Johnson’s decision had a “chilling effect” on the process, in part because of councilmanic prerogative, a long-standing practice that effectively gives council members the final say of development in their district.

During his opening statement, defense attorney Patrick Egan, who represents Johnson, pushed back on all of it, adding that his client had no financial incentive to throw away his political career over $70,000 in bribes.

What’s more, Universal never needed to pay off Johnson for his support, he said, because the nonprofit’s mission — providing affordable housing and better schools — aligned with Johnson’s priorities as a lawmaker.

“There isn’t a single shred of direct evidence in this case that there was any agreement among any of these individuals for any bribe to take place,” said Egan. “None of [the witnesses] are gonna tell you, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what the deal was.’”

Later in the afternoon, jurors heard testimony from Tamelia Hinson-Threadgill, who has worked for Universal Companies for nearly 25 years.

Hinson-Threadgill, who is also the stepdaughter of Kenny Gamble, the legendary music producer who co-founded Universal with his wife, is expected to return to the stand on Friday morning.

Gamble is listed as a potential witness for the government, but is not charged with any wrongdoing.

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