Chaka Fattah 101: What happened today and why he’s maybe staying behind bars

Appeals court tossed some of the the Philly ex-congressman’s bribery charges, but he’s still in prison.

Former U.S. Congressman Chaka Fattah went to prison in 2017 for racketeering and bribery. A federal appeals court just overturned his convictions.

Former U.S. Congressman Chaka Fattah went to prison in 2017 for racketeering and bribery. A federal appeals court just overturned his convictions.

U.S. House of Representatives
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News broke Thursday afternoon that a federal appeals court had overturned five bribery convictions of former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, a career politician who served Philly for 22 years before he went to prison in January 2017.

The 142-page opinion from the Third Circuit said that the judge in Fattah’s case had given the jury incorrect instructions on what constitutes an “official act” as subject to bribery laws, according to Law.com.

Could this get the former congressman out? It’s too soon to tell, but probably not.

The appeals court only overturned a few of Fattah’s bribery convictions — as well as those against his wealthy friend Herbert Vederman — not all 23 counts of bribery and racketeering. Now, 18 of Fattah’s convictions remain.

This could, however, reduce Fattah’s sentence, as the case has been remanded back to a lower court to be retried.

So how’d we get here? This story goes back 11 years, and includes a run for mayor, criminal allegations, a controversial trial and ultimately a lengthy prison sentence.

Here’s a recap of the chain of events that led to of Chaka Fattah’s conviction.

A bid for mayor

Just a few months before the 2007 primary election, Fattah had a good shot at becoming Philly mayor. He was a local favorite, and he had support from Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

But there were some issues with how his campaign was funded. At the time, according to city ordinances, donations to mayoral candidates were capped at $2,500 annually from an individual or $10,000 from a political committee.

That was a problem for Fattah, who had scored a $200,000 donation from philanthropist Gerry Lenfest before he announced his bid for mayor. He challenged the city’s rule with a lawsuit, but he lost.

Meanwhile, his friend and political strategist Greg Naylor apparently helped him secure an illegal $1 million loan late in the campaign from an unidentified wealthy individual, and he used campaign donations to pay for the student loans of his son, Chaka Fattah Jr.

Oh, and all these illegal money-making tactics didn’t even pay off.

Fattah came in fourth that May in the Democratic primary, losing to former Mayor Michael Nutter, and he blamed the media for it.

The allegations surface

Fattah’s behavior came back to bite him.

In July 2015, federal investigators accused Fattah of illegally misappropriating federal, campaign and charitable funds totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars in a 29-count indictment. At the time, he was in his 11th Congressional term.

How’d Fattah defend himself to the public? He compared himself to Tom Brady.

Yikes. Does this guy even know Philly?

And he still tried to get reelected

So, Fattah got charged with 29 counts of racketeering and bribery.

But he didn’t resign, nor did he give up hope of reelection.

“I’m not resigning,” Fattah told WURD-AM host Solomon Jones in an interview. “That’s not a matter of defiance. I’ve been elected to serve out my term, and I’m going to do that. And I’m going to run for re-election.”

In the 2016 primary election, Fattah ran as a Democrat for the same Congressional seat he held for 22 years (even though a judge advised him not to).

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

But no dice. Fattah was beat out by Congressman Dwight Evans. Ironically, campaign finance reports showed Evans raised a ton more money than Fattah did in the 2016 primary — Evans raked in $27 for every dollar Fattah did. And while Fattah had the official support of the Democratic City Committee, Evans won endorsements from Mayor Jim Kenney and Gov. Tom Wolf.

A controversial trial

So Fattah lost his job. And at that point, he had to proceed to trial.

It began in May 2016. Right away, the defense called in a handful of political insiders, all of whom applauded Fattah’s character. There was Elizabeth King, Fattah’s former legislative director; Debra Anderson, his congressional spokesperson, and former U.S. Rep. Robert Borski Jr., who said he held Fattah in “high personal regard.”

Just as jury deliberations began, Federal Judge Harvey Bartle decided to remove a juror who had been absent the last few days of the trial. The juror was replaced with an alternate, which slowed the process down a bit and later inspired Fattah to ask for a whole new trial.

A conviction

After a monthlong trial, Fattah was found guilty of all 29 criminal counts of racketeering and bribery, stemming from an eight-year federal investigation.

The judge went on to reverse some of those convictions, but Fattah was still convicted of most allegations.

Keep in mind, at this point, Fattah still hadn’t agreed to give up his job, or indicated any intention to resign from Congress. And his fellow Philly politicians kind of enabled him — when he was convicted, they expressed their sorrow and sympathy, rather than encourage him to resign.

Fattah resigns from Congress

But then, it finally happened. A couple days after the conviction, while awaiting his sentencing, Fattah gave up his government seat.

In his resignation letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, he never once mentioned his criminal conviction. Instead, he listed his accomplishments and wrote that he was “honored to have had the privilege to serve.”

The sentence

In December 2016, Fattah got his official sentence: He would have to spend a decade in prison and pay $614,000 in restitution to the victims of his corruption charges.

he ex-congressman would start his sentence the next month, in January 2017, at the Federal Correctional Institution-McKean on the New York-Pennsylvania border.

Trying to avoid prison

In the month between his sentencing and his first day in prison, Fattah fought to find a way out.

Remember that trial? The one where the juror got removed at the last minute? Well, Fattah didn’t forget.

In December, his attorneys filed a motion for a retrial because of that controversial dismissal of one juror — and also because of the Supreme Court’s decision at the time to overturn similar bribery charges against convicted Virginia politician Bob McDonnell (that happened days after Fattah was found guilty of bribery in June).

And then, some of Fattah’s supporters asked the actual president to get him out of his sentence.

Lanny Davis, Bill Clinton’s lawyer and spokesperson during the Lewinsky Scandal, and outspoken New Jersey pastor Rev. Dr. Therman Evans wrote a letter to then-President Barack Obama, asking for a Presidential pardon for Fattah.

Spoiler alert: Didn’t work.

The surrender

Fattah gave up on Jan. 25, when he surrendered to begin serving his 10-year prison term in Lewis Run, Pennsylvania. Lucky for Fattah, he got some advice from his incarcerated son: bring an extra pair of glasses.

The day before his surrender, Fattah was feeling good. He said he was optimistic about the appeals process, which he said might get him out of jail later.

“Under our system, not just for me, but for any American, no one is finally convicted until their appeal is heard,” he told WHYY. “I know that’s hard to extend that even to a politician like me, but it’s a benefit to all American citizens.”

Said Fattah: “The final chapter hasn’t been written yet.”