Defense to start calling witnesses in bribery trial of City Councilmember Johnson

Defense attorneys are expected to question witnesses for up to three days before the jury starts its deliberations.

City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson.

City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

After 10 days of testimony, the government has rested its case in the federal bribery trial of Philadelphia City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson. The defense will start calling witnesses on Thursday.

During jury selection, the case’s four defense attorneys indicated they could collectively question upwards of 40 witnesses. At this point, it’s unclear if Johnson or his co-defendants, including wife Dawn Chavous and two former executives at Universal Companies, will testify before the jury begins its deliberations.

Defense testimony is expected to take up to three days to complete.

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Prosecutors called nearly 20 witnesses during its case, spending the most amount of time with the FBI agent who led the bureau’s investigative team. Jurors also heard from prominent developer Carl Dranoff, school Superintendent William Hite, and several current and former employees at Universal, the nonprofit at the heart of the case.

Using emails, financial records and direct testimony, the government argued that Universal hired  Chavous’ consulting firm in 2013 so it could transfer and conceal nearly $67,000 in bribes to her husband. In exchange, prosecutors said Johnson used his seat on Council to help Universal maintain control of valuable real estate in his legislative district, including the historic Royal Theater, a dilapidated property the organization later sold for $3.7 million.

Much of the trial hinges on how much work Chavous did —or didn’t do — for Universal during her 16-month contract with the company.

Prosecutors have argued she did little work — less than 40 hours total. While cross-examining government witnesses, defense attorneys have sought to show she spent “hours and hours” helping Universal spread its story to politicians and wealthy donors with hopes of raising money for its network of charter schools. The defense has also tried to debunk the government’s argument that Johnson, Chavous and Universal hatched the alleged bribery scheme as a result of being in bad financial shape.

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Later in the day, U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh denied a defense motion filed by Johnson’s attorney Patrick Egan, which argued that Johnson and Chavous should be acquitted without a jury.

“Correlation does not equal causation,” Egan told McHugh. “The government has presented zero — zero — evidence of causation.” He said prosecutors failed to show, for instance, that Universal’s payments to Chavous’ consulting firm were bribes masquerading as compensation.

Thomas Fitzpatrick, who represents former Universal CFO Shahied Dawan, filed a similar motion. In court on Wednesday, he argued that his client had nothing to do with the hiring of Chavous’ consulting firm.

“Before we even reach the issue of motive to participate in any kind of bribery scheme, the government has to overcome the initial hurdle of ‘Did this guy do anything other than his job,’” said Fitzpatrick.

In response, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Gibson told McHugh that the government had presented enough evidence for the trial to proceed. “The consciousness of guilt displayed by all four of the defendants … there is simply no way to take this from the jury.”

McHugh agreed.

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