Philly Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, co-defendants found not guilty on bribery charges

Philadelphia City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson leaves Federal Court after the judge in his bribery trial declared a mistrial, following the jury's failure to reach a unanimous verdict on the charges. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

File photo: Philadelphia City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson leaves federal court after the judge in his bribery trial declared a mistrial, following the jury's failure to reach a unanimous verdict, on April 19, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A federal jury has found Philadelphia City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson not guilty of participating in a bribery scheme that allegedly saw the Democratic lawmaker accept thousands from two former nonprofit executives in exchange for political favors.

The panel also acquitted Johnson’s wife Dawn Chavous and two nonprofit executives — former Universal Companies CEO Abdur Rahim Islam and former CFO Shahied Dawan.

“I want to thank my Lord and savior Jesus Christ for covering me and my family and for allowing us to get a positive verdict today,” said Johnson, 49, outside of the courthouse.

“I’m looking forward to addressing the issue of gun violence here in the City of Philadelphia, and most importantly representing my constituents in the 2nd Councilmanic District and moving the City of Philadelphia forward.”

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Prosecutors declined to comment.

Wednesday’s verdict came on the fifth day of jury deliberations, just hours after U.S. District Judge Gerald A. McHugh, without explanation, dismissed a juror and instructed a reconstituted panel to start from scratch.

Chavous, 42, wept in open court after the verdict was announced. Her relief followed roughly three weeks of testimony that again threatened to end her husband’s political career and send the couple to prison — potentially for decades.

“We just thank the jury and we’re very happy that our clients can resume their life,” said attorney Barry Gross, who represented Chavous.

While a different jury sat for the retrial, the proceeding closely mirrored the first trial that ended in a mistrial in April after the jury said it was hopelessly deadlocked. The government did not present any new evidence the second time around. And its witness list was largely unchanged, again spending considerable time questioning the case’s lead FBI agent along with former and current Universal employees.

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A jury was asked to decide whether the case’s defendants had participated in a quid pro quo scheme between 2013 and and 2014 that allegedly saw Johnson accept nearly $67,000 in bribes from Islam and Dawan in exchange for his help holding onto valuable real estate in his legislative district.

Prosecutors argued Islam and Dawan funneled the bribe money to Johnson by making payments to Chavous’ consulting firm under a sham contract. Claiming Chavous did little work — no more than 40 hours over the course of 16 months — for the organization to prove otherwise. They said the work she did complete was either low value or could have been performed by existing Universal staffers.

In exchange for the money, Johnson allegedly introduced zoning legislation in 2014 that enabled Universal to maintain control of the Royal Theater on the 1500 block of South Street, then a crumbling eyesore the company was in danger of losing as a result of a conservatorship petition filed in state court.

The bill rezoned the Royal, making it possible for the nonprofit — or any other developer — to bring a mixed-use project to the site, while effectively ending the legal effort to separate Universal from the former entertainment venue.

The bribe money also allegedly prodded Johnson to use his councilmanic prerogative to stop the city from reclaiming vacant land Universal owns on the 1300 block of Bainbridge Street. This after the company, along with the Philadelphia Housing Authority, violated a 2005 agreement to build housing on the land. Prosecutors said Johnson’s position created a “chilling effect” that enabled Universal to keep the parcels and avoid a legal process known as reversion.

The case’s defense attorneys argued the government had no evidence to support its claims, only an “empty theory” of a bribery scheme involving Johnson and his three co-defendants.

During the trial, they painted Chavous as a “highly-respected” consultant who was well-positioned to help Universal, which was looking to bolster and grow its network of charter schools. They said Universal hired Chavous to help spread the word about that network to wealthy individuals and institutions with a history of supporting the charter school movement.

“It’s not like they found her at the Wendy’s drive-through,” said Patrick Egan, Johnson’s lawyer, during his opening statement to the jury.

Gross argued that his client’s contract was not hourly, and that investigators lacked the expertise to accurately calculate the amount of work Chavous did for Universal. Her contract  included arranging meetings with key charter school supporters and funders; supporting Universal’s efforts to secure new charter school sites; and helping to manage the company’s relationship with the School District of Philadelphia, according to testimony.

Johnson, now a free man, is expected to return to Council chambers on Thursday for the legislative body’s regularly scheduled session.

Islam and Dawan, meanwhile, must still stand for part two of the trial. The pair are accused of stealing nearly $500,000 from Universal.

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