Longtime Philadelphia Congressman Chaka Fattah may have been indicted on more than two dozen charges of public corruption today, but that doesn’t mean he’s going anywhere.
Earlier today, federal prosecutors announced that Fattah, who represents Philly as a U.S. congressman in his 11th consecutive term, is facing 29 counts of racketeering and conspiracy in connection with a series of questionable moves made by him and his closest political allies. Prosecutors allege that, among other things, Fattah took an illegal $1 million contribution in his failed bid for mayor in 2007.
The charges against Fattah were a long time coming — reports suggest he’s been being investigated for years — but his office says it’s still reviewing the indictment that came down today and deciding what to do next. In a statement released by his lawyer, Fattah has expressed his intent to plead not guilty.
“This is not Deflategate,” Fattah told reporters today, according to NBC News’ Luke Russert. “We have actual allegations now, and we’ll have a chance to respond.”
So will he resign? Will he stay in Congress? At age 58, could he retire early and focus on his defense?
Interestingly, there are, quite literally, no rules about what he has to do. The United States House of Representatives has no guidelines or stipulations for what members of Congress have to do if indicted on charges, whether they’re related to their official capacity as a public servant or not. But both parties have adopted a rule that ranking committee members or members of the leadership who are indicted should temporarily recuse themselves from those leadership positions.
Fattah, who serves as a ranking member on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, said today that he would recuse himself from his leadership position on that committee, and party leader Nancy Pelosi released a statement supporting Fattah’s recusal.
Now, it’s a waiting game to see what Fattah’s next move will be. He could either resign… or he could not. David Thornburgh, CEO of government watchdog group Committee of Seventy, said Fattah owes it to himself and his constituents to take himself “out of the game.”
“This has clearly been a long time coming,” Thornburgh said. “The complexity is, in some ways, more appalling than somebody taking a couple grand to do a favor. If this is all true, he had to put a great deal of thought into how this was all supposed to happen, which makes it that much more depressing.”
Dozens of indicted public officials over the years have stayed the course after being charged with a crime. You even have people like former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was indicted last year and is making run for president this year. Some public officials have even tried to remain in Congress after being convicted, but most were either pushed out by party leaders or voters.
What will likely happen is either an internal review of Fattah by his colleagues in the House while the criminal prosecution of him continues, or at least an explanation of why House members think one isn’t needed. According to the Congressional Research Service, House rules require the House Committee on Ethics to either a. start an inquiry into the member within 30 days of the indictment or b. report to the House their reasons for not moving forward with one.
Looking down the line, things could change for Fattah if he’s convicted on any of the felonies that could put him in jail for years. At that point, he’d likely be asked to resign by party leadership and his federal pension could be in jeopardy if he’s convicted.
Federal provisions stipulate that the conviction of public corruption will result in the loss of the House Member’s entire “creditable service” for purposes of calculating their federal retirement annuities — so long as the corruption is related to the person’s official duties. In this case, a number of the conspiracy and racketeering charges against Fattah relate to his position as a Congressman, with the exception of the money he allegedly took to run for mayor in 2007.
But at that point, if convicted, Fattah still wouldn’t be *required* to step down from his position on Congress.
House rules say that a member who is convicted of a crime for which a prison sentence of two or more years could be handed down, the member only has to stay out of committee meetings and not vote on the floor until winning re-election, effectively disenfranchising their own district until they’re up again for a seat. That’s what New York Rep. Michael Grimm tried to do last year after being convicted of tax evasion, until he met with Speaker of the House John Boehner and suddenly had a change of heart.
In Philadelphia, if Fattah doesn’t resign or see a courtroom before November of 2016, he could again be up for re-election. At that point, though, a Democrat might actually challenge him, unlike last fall when he faced only a longshot Republican who garnered little support and hardly posed a threat.
Someone viable should have run against Fattah last fall, argue some, when many knew Fattah’s legal troubles were brewing. But no one stepped up to use it against him.
“That’s how the system’s supposed to work,” Thornburgh said. “If you have somebody that crosses a line in a situation like this, you should have a political system that opens the door to a challenger that has a greater sense of integrity than the incumbent and can use that. But between redistricting and a one-party rule and the smug satisfaction of our political culture, we don’t have that.”
A number of names have been tossed out as potential successors to Fattah — people who would either challenge him in 2016 or run for his seat if he resigns or decides not to run again. Among those names are state Sen. Vincent Hughes, Councilman Curtis Jones or Councilwoman Cindy Bass, Newsworks’ Dave Davies reported last year.
Mayor Michael Nutter’s name has also been thrown around as a potential suitor for the job. But will he consider a run now that Fattah’s been indicted? If so, he’s not saying.
He told press today that it would be “rude” to even talk about it.