No verdict yet in federal bribery trial of Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson

Philadelphia Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson exits the federal courthouse with family on April 14, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson exits the federal courthouse with family on April 14, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The federal jury weighing the fate of Philadelphia City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson did not reach a verdict on Thursday, the second day of deliberations.

The panel did have questions for U.S. District Judge Gerald A. McHugh — mostly about whether it could have copies of evidence presented at trial, including testimony from government witnesses.

To date, the jury has spent roughly 12 hours discussing the bribery case, which could send both Johnson and his wife Dawn Chavous to prison for up to 40 years.

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Their co-defendants — former Universal Companies CEO Abdur Rahim Islam and former Universal Companies CFO Shahied Dawan — are also charged with two counts of honest services wire fraud.

McHugh has given the panel the day off on Friday for the Good Friday and Passover holidays, meaning deliberations will resume Monday.

While presenting its case, the government argued that Universal, a nonprofit developer and charter school operator, put Johnson “on retainer” in 2013 and 2014 in exchange for political favors that helped the organization maintain control of valuable real estate in Johnson’s legislative district. Universal sold one of the properties, the historic Royal Theater on South Street, for $3.7 million after Johnson introduced legislation to rezone the site.

Prosecutors have argued that Universal used Chavous’ consulting firm to funnel nearly $67,0000 in bribes to her husband, and that Chavous did “very little” work for the company to prove otherwise.

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Defense attorneys have pushed back on all of it. They’ve said Chavous’ contract with Universal was legitimate, and that the nonprofit had no need to bribe Johnson because the two had a history of “mutual support” dating back to the Democrats days as a state representative in Harrisburg. That support, they argued, was rooted in a shared desire to provide affordable housing and good schools to residents in South and Southwest Philadelphia.

The defense has also batted down the government’s claim that Universal and Johnson hatched a bribery scheme while both were in bad financial shape.

If convicted, Johnson could also become the second sitting Council member to be ousted over political corruption charges. In January, City Councilmember Bobby Henon resigned his seat after a jury found him guilty of bribery alongside powerful labor leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty.

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