It could be a year before embroiled Philadelphia Congressman Chaka Fattah heads to trial on federal corruption charges.
The veteran Democratic lawmaker could be arraigned soon, but experts say it’ll take months for attorneys to sift through evidence and be ready for a case where testimony is likely to last a few weeks, if not more.
The 85-page indictment, handed down Wednesday, covers 29 counts stemming from a handful of schemes that Fattah and four of his associates allegedly participated in for personal and political gain.
In that narrative, a lot of money allegedly passes through a lot of hands. Throw in charges that some of the cash was filtered through nonprofits or federal programs and you’re talking about a pretty big paper trail.
“I’d say on a case like this you’d be looking at a trial nine to 12 months,” said criminal defense attorney Christopher Warren.
In the meantime, it wouldn’t be unusual to see one or more of Fattah’s co-defendants plead guilty. Veteran prosecutor George Parry said being indicted and coming face to face with the prospect of prison time can change people’s minds.
“If I was representing one of them, I would certainly explore that option with the government,” said Parry.
Any plea deal, he added, would almost certainly include a provision to cooperate with prosecutors.
Fattah and four associates are charged with racketeering, conspiracy, bribery and other offenses.
The group consists of Herbert Vederman, a former deputy mayor of Philadelphia; Fattah’s congressional district director Bonnie Bowser; former aide Karen Nicholas and Robert Brand, a campaign contributor.
Fattah’s former chief of staff, Gregory Naylor and political consultant Tom Lindenfeld have previously pleaded guilty.
Fattah’s wife, NBC10 news anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah crops up in the indictment as “Person E” with prosecutors claiming she had some involvement in one of the alleged schemes. But she was not charged with any offense. She issued a statement denying any wrongdoing and disputing the indictment’s account of her actions involving the phony sale of a car to Vederman. She is on leave from the station.
In the alleged scheme at the heart of the case, Fattah allegedly used a pair of nonprofits he founded to help repay part of an illegal $1 million campaign loan that he received while he was running for Philadelphia mayor in 2007. The amount of the loan in question was roughly $600,000.
Prosecutors also charge that Fattah used campaign funds to pay his son’s college debt and tried to get an ambassadorship for Vederman in return for favors and gifts from Vederman.
Warren, the defense lawyer, said it’s too early to weigh in on whether Fattah will beat the charges. He does think prosecutors have their hands full making case under the racketeering statute, known as RICO.
“When a jury hears RICO, racketeering, their first thought is Michael Corleone, Al Pacino. They hear the theme from ‘The Godfather,'” Warren said. “And that’s essentially what the government is claiming here. They have the same sort of racketeering enterprise that the La Cosa Nostra is.
“That’s a tough sell.”
Fattah’s lawyer said his client will plead not guilty and fight the charges, and intends to continue serving in Congress.
The Democratic primary is roughly nine months from now, which means it’s possible Fattah could be running for re-election as his trial gets under way.