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U.S. House of Representatives

Chaka Fattah 101: Philly’s still-standing, embattled congressman

Chaka Fattah is a Congressman from Philadelphia known more for his longevity and questionable practices than any major accomplishments, despite being in politics for over 30 years. His name recognition here in Philadelphia, plus the overwhelming Democratic support in his 2nd District almost assure him re-election in 2016 — unless he’s facing a federal indictment, a possibility given the campaign finance controversy swirling around him since August… and he’s no stranger to controversy.

Billy Penn broke down what you need to know about Fattah and the allegations against him.

Tell me a little bit more about Fattah’s background.

Fattah is a political lifer. In 1982 Fattah won the 192nd District in West Philadelphia, becoming a member of the state house. He had won the Democratic primary that spring by just 58 votes, according to the Inquirer. He was only 24.

Fattah would spend a total of six years in the state House and another six as a state senator. In 1994, he won the U.S. House spot for the 2nd District of Pennsylvania (it’s basically West Philly, North Philly and some of MontCo). He’s won every two years since then, and was elected to his 11th term this November. Most of the time, he’s run uncontested in the Democratic primary; in the general election he’s never garnered less than 85 percent of the vote against his often hapless challengers (mostly Republicans; in 2000, he won with 98 percent, defeating a Libertarian candidate).

As a U.S. Congressman, Fattah is a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, meaning he’s been part of a group responsible for spending around $1 trillion a year in discretionary funds. He has significant pull over how money gets spent for the Department of Justice, Commerce and NASA. His biggest accomplishments have included sponsoring a $14 billion tax credit for college students and a neuroscience initiative and starting the movement to direct funds for safe blood testing in Africa.

Has he done anything sketchy as a congressman?

Buckle up, here’s where things get interesting. We’ll start with a 2004 earmark controversy before delving into the more recent campaign finance mess.

Back in 2004, Fattah got Congressional approval for a $750,000 earmark that was essentially going to pay his former political aide Howard Brown to tell golf courses to make their putting greens, well, green. At the time, Brown was married to Philly City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds-Brown. George W. Bush’s EPA, not exactly a roaring tiger of a regulator, blocked the earmark so it never happened. Brown later said he and Fattah had planned to use the funding to educate children in golf.

Then the Feds started investigating Fattah and his son, Chaka Fattah Jr., for yet another earmark. In 2009, Fattah sought a $375,000 earmark for the for-profit Delaware Valley High School at which Fattah Jr. was the director of business development. Fattah said the requested earmark had nothing to do with his son, whose finances and career had been faltering. The request happened between April 27 and May 8 of 2009, possibly just before Fattah Jr. began his employment there. This story broke in 2012, when Feds raided the house of Fattah Jr.

For years, the feds have supposedly been investigating Fattah-sponsored earmarks aimed toward nonprofits run by his friends. Also: This October, the Daily News reported that between 2001 and 2012 nonprofits either founded by Fattah or nonprofits that he is associated with had paid $5.8 million to friends and associates of Fattah.

Didn’t Fattah run for mayor?

He did. Not only did he lose, but what happened during that campaign are now at the center of the scandal that’s embroiling him.

Months before that 2007 primary election, Fattah was considered the favorite. He had a loyal following in Philadelphia, a well-known name and backing from Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who wasn’t yet president but still a rising political star.

Experts say Fattah was largely done-in by an inability to properly raise money. According to city ordinances, donations to mayoral candidates were capped at $2,500 annually from an individual or $10,000 from a political committee (they are now $2,900 and $11,500 respectively). Fattah would challenge the law with a lawsuit, but it wasn’t successful. Once he announced his official intentions to run, he had to abide by those rules and couldn’t get anymore huge donations from people like Gerry Lenfest — who gave Fattah $200,000 when he was “exploring” whether he should run for mayor — or tap into the deep Congressional fundraising account that had been buoyed by events he hosted that featured Clinton and Obama.

In January of 2007, Fattah was still considered the front runner. His lead unraveled as candidates Tom Knox and Michael Nutter outraised him on the campaign trail. After he finished fourth that May in the Democratic primary (Nutter, of course, won), Fattah blamed the media for portraying him negatively while championing Nutter. His supporters told the Daily News on May 16, 2007, Fattah didn’t work hard enough to raise funds the way the city required under its limits.

How is that mayoral race still an issue now?

During that election, as he struggled to raise funds, he was getting help from Greg Naylor, a friend and political strategist. This August, Naylor pled guilty to helping Fattah (who wasn’t named in the court filing but could easily be identified) secure an illegal $1 million loan late in the campaign from an individual who was not identified in the court filing. To pay back the donor, Naylor said he conspired with Fattah to use funds granted by the United States to Fattah’s nonprofit, the Educational Advancement Alliance.

Naylor also said he used campaign donations to pay for the student loans of Chaka Fattah Jr.

Is Fattah facing criminal charges?

Not at the moment. But he certainly could face federal charges in the future, like Naylor. His political colleagues are using words like “significant legal battle” and “federal process” when they talk about him.

And that’s just for the campaign finance problem. His earmark probs could be bad, too. Here’s what Sean Kennedy, director of research for Citizens Against Government Waste told the Daily News about the federal funding directed to his pals: “There are members of Congress that have gone to jail for exactly this sort of thing. It’s an inherently corrupting practice. When you see former chiefs of staff receiving earmarks, it does not look very good.”

Wait, isn’t his son in really big trouble?

Sure is. He was indicted this year on 23 federal counts related to improper use of banks loans, false statements to banks, filing false tax returns and stealing federal funds. The federal funds part is for that 2009 earmark for Delaware Valley High School involving his father. The feds have accused Fattah Jr. of stealing some of those federal funds.

The rest of the charges: Fattah Jr. allegedly used business loans to pay off personal debts at Sugarhouse and Harrah’s casinos, rather than use the funds for his consulting business, 259 Strategies. The Feds say Fattah Jr. defrauded banks of a total of $206,000.

Fattah Jr. filed a lawsuit this year against the IRS, FBI and Justice Department accusing them of leaking his investigation to the media, causing him undue negative publicity. Fattah released a statement to the Inquirer after his son’s indictment saying, “I am confident the facts will clear his name. I love him and stand by him today and every day.”

Has he ever had any “gaffes”? Anything weird he’s said about controversy?

Well, yeah — in his 2007 mayoral race Fattah caught a lot of flack for his belief and actions toward getting cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal a retrial. On Veteran’s Day last month, with the sexual assault allegations of Bill Cosby in the news, Fattah said Philadelphia should have a “Bill Cosby month.”  Contacted recently by Billy Penn to talk about Cosby, Fattah did not respond.

If his political dealings have been so shady, why did he win about 88 percent of this year’s vote?  

Fattah, himself, put it best way back in 1982, when he was elected for the first time. Racial tension was high in Philadelphia given the Mumia case and years of demographic change and unrest in West Philadelphia and when he unseated the white incumbent in the Democratic primary, he knew he’d still dominate against the Republicans. Fattah told the Inquirer, “Even those people who can’t pronounce my name would rather have a Democrat than a Republican in this seat.” It’s been that way ever since. In 2014, before the latest and biggest accusations against him, he ran unchallenged in the Democratic primary.

What is likely to happen to him in the future?

Unless he resigns he’ll be in office until 2017 after winning in November. Given his perceived vulnerability, however, a Democrat might actually challenge him in the 2016 primary.

Chris Brennan of the Daily News asked some local pols about Fattah’s future last month. Nutter said he thought Fattah would be running again in two years. State senator Mike Stack felt the same way. City controller Alan Butkovitz said he didn’t expect Fattah would be running.

One more thing. Did I see him on “The Colbert Report” a few years ago?

During brighter times, Fattah was indeed on “The Colbert Report,” as part of Stephen Colbert’s “Better Know a District” segment. You should probably watch it. Fattah also wanted NASA to name a room in the international space station after Colbert when NASA refused to do so even though Colbert’s fans had voted for the room to be named after him.

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