Federal prosecutors painted a picture of a comfortable, corrupt career politician who used lies and fraud to cover his tracks in transferring money and paying down his political debt, as day one of the corruption trial of U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah opened Monday in Center City.
Grinning and even chuckling at times, Fattah, an 11-term member of Congress, appeared confident in court as prosecutors laid out the charges against him.
“Racketeering, wire fraud, honest services fraud, mail fraud, falsification of records, bribery, bank fraud, money laundering, conspiracy, theft … he took from taxpayers, he even stole from his own campaign,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Gray said before a jury split evenly between men and women.
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Last month, Fattah was ousted in the Democratic primary for Pennsylvania's 2nd Congressional District seat by State Rep. Dwight Evans.
Fattah and four other co-conspirators are on trial for crimes under the RICO Act, all allegedly linked to misappropriating hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal, charitable and campaign funds and advancing Fattah’s personal and political interests and those of his friends and allies.
Herbert Vederman, a longtime friend and political consultant, is accused of writing generous checks to Fattah’s adult children, Fran and Chaka “Chip” Jr., who were purportedly in need of financial help over the years. In exchange, Fattah sought for Vederman to gain an ambassadorship to the United States Trade Commission and wrote letters to President Barack Obama on his behalf.
According the indictment, Fattah also accepted an $18,000 bribe from Vederman, which he disguised as the sale of his wife’s Porsche. Prosecutors say that car never left the Fattah’s Philadelphia garage – except when they were driving it.
“These are crimes of spending illegal money. The defendants left a trail of false documents,” Gray said.
“But for this investigation, Fattah would have cheated his way out his own political debt. That’s fraud. That’s flat-out fraud,” he said.
Robert Brand, the founder of a Philadelphia-based consulting firm and husband of a former Fattah staffer, allegedly executed fake contracts to conceal the transfer of nearly a million dollars of federal grant monies to repay an illegal $1 million loan made to Fattah during his failed mayoral bid in 2007.
Karen Nicholas, former Fattah congressional aide and CEO of a nonprofit founded by Fattah, is on trial for allegedly misusing $50,000 in federal grants intended for a conference on education that never took place. Instead, prosecutors claim she wrote checks to herself.
Bonnie Bowser was chief of staff to Fattah’s Congressional office in Philadelphia and treasurer of the Fattah for Mayor and Fattah for Congress campaign organizations. The indictment alleges Bowser had power of attorney over Fattah’s personal and campaign financial transactions and was involved in a scheme to violation the local campaign finance laws during Fattah’s 2007 race for mayor.
Opening statements Monday were delivered before a packed courtroom in what is predicted to be one of the most closely watched cases in recent Philadelphia history. The trial is expected to last about eight weeks.
Two of Fattah’s formers aids and confidants – Thomas Lindenfeld and Gregory Naylor – have already pleaded guilty to similar charges and are expected to testify.
“The government’s case rests on the words of two convicted felons,” said Mark Lee, one of two defense attorneys for Fattah.
“His lifestyle is not on trial here. Mrs. Fattah’s choice of automobile is not on trial.
“Fattah never directed anyone to take out any illegal loan. Anyone who says that during this trial has something to gain for saying so. Not a dime of federal money was ever spent on this so-called scheme. Fattah’s son had problems in school and a gambling problem. But it had nothing to do with taking campaign funds to pay tuition,” said Lee.
Testimony resumes Tuesday.