Congressman Chaka Fattah, a Philadelphia Democrat, speaks to the center for American Progress in 2010.

Congressman Chaka Fattah, a Philadelphia Democrat, speaks to the center for American Progress in 2010.

Photographer Ralph Alswang via Flickr

‘I’m as innocent as you’: Chaka Fattah on his re-election fight and the charges he faces

The 22-year Congressman, indicted on federal corruption charges, grants a rare interview as he faces an unprecedented challenge.

Twenty-two articles and press releases are strewn across a dark wood table in the board room of Congressman Chaka Fattah’s West Philly office. They’re from the White House, The New York Times, The Inquirer, The Times of Israel. Some are from his own office. Each touts something Fattah did while in the United States Congress representing Philadelphia.

For 16 minutes, the 59-year-old describes each one in varying detail.

“This is a story about my funding of the bridge over the Schuylkill, but it’s really symbolic of a host of efforts across the district.

“This is my tuition and tax credit program… this has helped millions of families.

“This is my effort to get rid of public housing high rises in Philadelphia.

“This was my first big success in Congress.”

Fattah has 22 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, and another 12 in public service to rattle off when anyone asks why he’s running for re-election to represent the second congressional district for a 12th term. He says at least 25 million people have been impacted by his programs (there are 715,000 people in his district, 1.5 million in Philadelphia and 12.8 million in the state), and that there isn’t a single person in the city who “has not been touched in some significant, positive way” by something he put in place.

He’s a member of the Democratic political establishment in both Philadelphia and Washington, and predicts that if things go his way, he’s next in line to take over as the Democratic chairman of the Committee on Appropriations in the House. By Fattah’s own assessment, he could soon hold the purse strings of a nation in his hands.

But behind the confidence, the political experience and the public relations in those 22 articles are 29 federal counts of corruption — the reason why Fattah is in the thick of his most contested congressional race since he first won the seat in 1994. Despite the successes, the connections, the seniority and the support, he’s a career politician who’s nearly out of campaign funds and who couldn’t pay the lawyers defending him on charges of using public money and charity dollars to further his political career and line the pockets of his associates.

And his family has fallen with him. His son, Chaka Fattah, Jr., is in federal prison after being convicted on charges he funneled government money to himself and defrauded others to pad a luxurious lifestyle. Fattah’s wife, Renee Chenault-Fattah, was implicated in the indictment against the congressman and no longer sits at the anchor desk at NBC 10 where she worked for nearly 25 years.

Still, as he faces years behind bars, Fattah’s fighting to keep his seat in the Democratic primary on April 26. The prize? His political life.

The strategy: Avoid a ‘Chip Kelly trade’

There’s no better time to kick a candidate than when he’s down.

Though Fattah was reportedly under investigation by the Department of Justice for eight years, it took charges on racketeering and bribery for challengers to come forward. A handful of names circulated, from District Attorney Seth Williams to now former Mayor Michael Nutter. State Rep. Brian Sims declared himself a challenger, then dropped out before filing day.

But now, with about two months to go before the primary, three challengers have emerged: Longtime Northwest Philly state Rep. Dwight Evans, Lower Merion Township Commissioner Brian Gordon and ward leader Dan Muroff. The only poll conducted so far suggests Evans is in the lead, but there’s a caveat: Evans, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, paid for that poll. For context, here’s what geographic area the second district covers:

Evans is the challenger who could do the most damage to Fattah’s campaign for re-election. Strategists widely believe he has the most name recognition in the field (absent the incumbent), as well as the most cash and a handful of top Philadelphia and state politicians standing behind him who are willing to throw in public support and money for ads.

Fattah, who has so far largely escaped being attacked by challengers with regard to the litany of criminal charges and accusations against him, is harnessing the one thing that he has that Evans doesn’t: 22 years in congress and a seat on the House Committee on Appropriations.

He can tout his role in passing the Affordable Care Act. He can point to his early and loud support of President Barack Obama. And above all, he can say that there’s essentially no chance someone who beats him in the election would, as a freshman congressman, earn a seat on appropriations. Voting in a new congressman would be, in his words, a “Chip Kelly trade” — something that, roughly speaking, changes the team but for the worse.

“People got to be real careful about taking out a guy like that,” State Sen. Vincent Hughes, a longtime Fattah supporter, said last June. “Congress works off seniority. When you get someone who’s invested 10 or 20 years, and they’re in there and bringing resources back, it doesn’t really make sense to get rid of them.”

Fattah’s position on the spending committee has allowed him to direct resources to programs he’s prioritized over the years, whether it’s neuroscience and research involving brain function, youth mentoring expansion or education programs that have helped underprivileged families send their kids to college.

But this is only part of the story. Sure, Fattah is still a member of several subcommittees that handle appropriations. However, he was once the top Democrat on the group that handles cash flow to Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies. When charges came down last summer, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Fattah had “rightly” given up his ranking position.

Muroff, the past president of CeaseFire PA who’s taken up gun violence prevention as one of his primary causes, said he wouldn’t diminish the importance of a district being represented on a powerful committee with control over spending, but noted that he’s “the only challenger” with experience as a senior level legislative staff member in the federal government.

He added: “I don’t think that not having somebody on the appropriations committee disenfranchises the city.”

A lack of cash and divided support

fattahwithhughes
Twitter

Fattah was once a shoo-in for his seat representing the second congressional district, one of the poorest in the nation and the only district in Pennsylvania with a majority black residency. He won landslide after landslide every two years since 1994 without facing a formidable opponent once in the Democratic primary, and certainly not in the general election.

The congressman has never won less than 85 percent of the vote in the general, and in 2000 he defeated a Libertarian by garnering an unheard-of 98 percent of the vote. This dominance has allowed him to spend little on campaigning, save for his 2007 bid for mayor. In the 2011-12 election period, he spent $162,000 while the average winner of a House seat spent 10 times that, some $1.6 million. All the while he did it with his own little West Philadelphia political machine, with the support of people like Hughes and Councilwoman Cindy Bass.

Richardson Dilworth, a professor of politics and the director of Drexel’s Center for Public Policy (and, yes, grandson of the former mayor), observed that Fattah has “great” name recognition in his district, and said he’s not convinced his indictment is going hurt him much at the polls.

“He’s done lots of favors for lots of people,” Dilworth said. “[He’s] got an incredible social network. [But] there are lots of people he hasn’t done favors for, too. Anecdotally, from what I’ve seen, I wouldn’t count him as the most popular of Philadelphia politicians.”

Retired Councilwoman Marian Tasco didn’t mince words in 2006 when Fattah was in the process of running for mayor. “He doesn’t have any relationships,” she told The Inquirer at the time. “Now all of a sudden he wants to run for mayor and he shows up dispensing checks. Where’s he been?”

Fattah wasn’t known as the type of person who would frequently help other politicos around town raise money. That’s an area where Evans — who’s successfully stumped for other candidates across the state — has him beat. The longtime northwest Philadelphia state politician has friends in both Philadelphia and state politics, including Tasco, who has a reputation for being able to whip up a significant amount of votes in her 50th ward. Evans has already been endorsed by both Gov. Tom Wolf and Mayor Jim Kenney, the latter of whom praised Evans for being someone who “has built relationships and is not a divisive figure.”

Fattah, frankly, doesn’t care about the politicians who have backed his most well-known opponent. He says he’s just fine garnering the support of the full Democratic city committee and the endorsement of unions like the Service Employees International Union and AFSCME district council 33.

“Some of the major players in the city leadership maybe are not embracing me because allegations have been made about me,” Fattah said. “I wouldn’t trade for a day some very well-meaning, well-intentioned person who might be at the pillar of the city’s civic leadership for having working families stay with me.”

With that said, endorsements can sometimes help win elections. But money more often does. And the most recent campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Elections Commission show Fattah, who makes $174,000 a year in congressional salary, had less than $6,000 in his campaign coffers as of Dec. 31. He says he’s spent more than $300,000 paying for his legal defense.

Meanwhile, Evans had $303,000 on hand and Muroff had $208,000. They’re both expected to start spending soon on television ads to increase name recognition in the district. Fattah says he can get by largely on the fact that his name has been on the ballot for two decades.

He brings up that former Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush spent $136 million compared to Donald Trump’s $11 million. He talks about how former Mayor Michael Nutter spent about a third of what businessman Tom Knox did in the 2007 mayoral race. (Of note: Fattah came in fourth in that race. Evans came in fifth of five.) Fattah makes sure to note, too, that Sims raised $230,000 to challenge him for Congress this year and didn’t make it to filing day.

What he will admit: Raising cash for re-election while under the cloud of federal indictment has been a struggle.

“It’s very hard…” he said. “You’re asking people to write a check in a situation where the press might say ‘they wrote a check’ or question them writing a check.”

Fighting charges: ‘I’m as innocent as you’

Chaka Fattah and wife Renee Chenault-Fattah

Chaka Fattah and wife Renee Chenault-Fattah

After Fattah rattles off his accomplishments, he draws comparisons to others he says were unfairly targeted by law enforcement.

Fattah compared himself to Rep. Joseph McDade, D-Pa., and Rep. Floyd Flake, D-N.Y., two former congressman charged in the 90’s with corruption who were both later acquitted. He also mentioned Rep. Curt Weldon, a Republican congressman from the Philly ‘burbs and a veritable 9/11 truther who served in Congress until 2007 when he lost to Joe Sestak, now a senate candidate. Weldon was investigated by the feds and never charged, but news of a probe may have cost him his seat.

In Fattah’s eyes, this — people being wrongly accused — happens all the time. He talks about how charges were dropped against a Temple professor recently accused of being a Chinese spy. He even brought up that, earlier this month, charges were dropped against five Brooklyn teenagers accused of gang-raping a woman at a playground.

But Fattah says he “won’t dignify” the charges by getting into the nitty-gritty. So here’s what prosecutors say happened:

Fattah and four of his close associates were indicted by federal prosecutors with the Department of Justice in July after they poked around in the congressman’s finances for the better part of eight years. They say Fattah and his allies ran not one, but several schemes, that misappropriated funds and helped him further his own political and financial interests. Among the charges: Mail fraud, bank fraud, conspiracy, bribery and racketeering, which is essentially using a legit organization for illegal purposes.

Some of the earliest charges stem from Fattah’s failed bid for Philadelphia mayor in 2007, when his early lead was dwindling just weeks before the primary and he was running low on cash. So the feds say he secured a $1 million loan from then-Sallie Mae CEO Al Lord — a big no-no in campaign finance — and then paid back $600,000 of it using charitable and federal funds through his nonprofit the Educational Advancement Alliance.

It’s alleged that he misappropriated more funds from his mayoral and congressional campaigns in order to pay off his son’s student loan debt by dispensing checks to a political consulting firm which then lessened his son’s college debt burden. The feds also claim that in 2008, Fattah tried to secure an ambassadorship for lobbyist Herbert Vederman, one of the co-defendants. Prosecutors say Fattah tried to conceal an $18,000 bribe from Vederman by pretending he sold a Porsche to the man.

“The public expects their elected officials to act with honesty and integrity,” U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia Zane Memeger said when charges were filed. “By misusing campaign funds, misappropriating government funds, accepting bribes, and committing bank fraud, as alleged in the Indictment, Congressman Fattah and his co-conspirators have betrayed the public trust and undermined faith in government.”

Experts seem to agree that prosecutors have their hands full trying to prove their charges because of a long paper trail (900,000 pages of government evidence) that will have to be nailed down in court. And the Department of Justice contends its investigators weren’t unfairly targeting the congressman.

Meanwhile, Fattah has taken heat from the judge in the case for publicly claiming he’s more focused on winning re-election than he is in defending himself. U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III told Fattah in January: “You need to take this matter seriously and think long and hard about your priorities.”

The charges Fattah denies are what he somehow calls “a clarifying moment.”

“Sometimes when you’re flying on Air Force One and some corporate CEO is waiting to greet you and introduce you and this and that, but they’re really not talking to you. They’re kind of dealing with the position,” Fattah said. “Now I know it’s actually people in the barbershops and the beauty salons. These are the people that have been voting for me and praying for me for all these years.”

After charges were filed against Fattah last summer, not everyone in West Philadelphia, an area that was once on lock for the former congressman’s voters base, was on Fattah’s side and praying for his re-election. One man standing outside a barbershop on Lancaster Avenue put it this way: “We keep supporting these people, keep electing them, but they always end up doing dumb shit.” Many are concerned Fattah is just another in a long line of political figures exposed of being involved in shady dealings.

“Innocent until proven guilty” has, predictably, become the congressman’s mantra.

“I’m as innocent as you are under our system,” Fattah said. “They don’t even have to believe in me. All they have to do is believe in the system.”

The uncertain legacy of Chaka Fattah

Congressman Chaka Fattah with students at Girard College on Martin Luther King Day earlier this year.

Congressman Chaka Fattah with students at Girard College on Martin Luther King Day earlier this year.

Twitter

From the outside, things seem painful for Fattah’s family. It was recently announced that his wife who was not charged was “no longer” at NBC 10 after a six-month period on leave from the station, and Fattah Jr. is in a jail cell. His father said he’s spoken to his son, who is looking forward to appealing his own federal case.

But Fattah says he’s also more committed now than he ever has been. Committed to youth mentorship. Committed to funding neuroscience research. Committed to fair housing. Committed to one day — maybe six days after the primary, the scheduled start date of his trial — fighting those criminal charges.

“I’m going to win this election. I’m going to get these allegations behind me. And then I’m going to continue my work in the Congress,” he said. “And I’m going to leave it to others to figure out everybody’s motives.”

He says the work he wants to complete will take him another decade. That’s at least four more elections to win. Ironically, Fattah says that one day he hopes his legacy in Philadelphia is not about his success at the polls or the elections he’s won or even about his prominence in the Washington Democratic establishment, but rather, he says, about what he’s done for his constituents and for the country.

“I’ve won dozens and dozens of elections. That is not going to be the big deal of whatever is said about me,” he says, pausing to point at the 22 articles that lay out his political accomplishments. “The biggest deal is: ‘What did you do?’”

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