Who is Dawn Chavous? The powerful woman at the center of the feds’ latest Philly indictment

The 40-year-old political consultant is married to Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, who is a co-defendant.

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and his wife Dawn Chavous exiting federal court Friday

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and his wife Dawn Chavous exiting federal court Friday

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
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Dawn Chavous has a wide-ranging resume that spans the halls of power in Philadelphia.

Political consultant, nonprofit founder, board member. Charter school lobbyist, small business owner, mayoral appointee. Democratic committee person. Landlord in gentrifying Point Breeze. She’s also an R&B singer who tracked under the stage name “Chavous.”

As of this week, however, the public knows her most prominently as a co-defendant in the city’s latest corruption scandal.

After a five-year FBI investigation, Chavous was indicted Wednesday alongside her husband, Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson. Federal prosecutors allege Chavous received more than $66,000 in cushy consulting work from Universal Companies, a prominent nonprofit developer and charter school operator in South Philly. Prosecutors say the alleged do-nothing work was trade for Johnson’s approval of a needed zoning variance and help with other land use issues.

Husband and wife each face two charges of fraud that carry maximum sentences of 40 years in prison and $500,000 in fines. Both maintain their innocence and say they’ll fight the charges.

“I’m confident when this is over, the facts will reveal that I have done nothing wrong and my name and my family’s name will be cleared so we can put this behind us,” Chavous said in a written statement Wednesday.

Chavous has never run for elected office herself, but a spotlight now shines on her deep political ties — and particularly on how she has navigated the way they overlap with Johnson’s.

Prosecutors paint a portrait of a Chavous, 40, as a financial conduit through whom special interests could guide her husband’s hand. Her defenders say she’s simply an ambitious operative, and has even foregone professional opportunities to avoid accusations about misusing her husband’s power.

A relationship born of the Williams dynasty

The Chavouses and the Johnsons would not be where they are today without the Williamses.

Dawn Chavous was indoctrinated early into the world of Pennsylvania politics and advocacy. Her mother, Barbara Chavous, worked as a social worker and an aide to former state Sen. Hardy Williams.

After graduating from Ursinus College, a small liberal arts school in Montgomery County, the young Chavous also found her professional footing in a Williams’ office — not with the late Hardy Williams, but with his son, current state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, a 10-year Pa. rep who swept into his father’s seat in 1999.

Between 2001 and 2010, Chavous worked her way up from a rookie aide to chief of staff, eventually managing the senator’s whole office. Seldom mentioned is that one of the aides in her employ was an Ivy-educated South Philadelphian named Kenyatta Johnson.

This was years before they would become a power couple among the city’s political elite, and the power dynamic was different.

Johnson, a protege of Williams, caught the candidate bug himself. When he left the office to run for former state Rep. Harold James’ seat in 2008, it was widely reported that he resigned. A source close to the family said he didn’t exactly make the decision on his own. Six years’ his junior, Chavous essentially forced Johnson out of the office so he could focus on his race, the source said. (Williams declined a request to comment for this story.)

Chavous was also moving towards bigger things. She left Williams’ office in 2010 to run his unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign. At the same time, she launched Chavous Consulting, the firm now cast in dubious light by the federal probe.

She and Johnson would not marry until years later, after she launched the next chapter of her own career.

Charter school champion and political ace

The feds’ case against Chavous involves Universal Companies, the Kenney Gamble-founded nonprofit that runs a series of charter schools.

Chavous is considered a prominent lobbyist in the charter school movement — which has earned her the ire of traditional public education advocates for her work on the issue.

A product of both public and private schools in Philadelphia, including Chestnut Hill’s prestigious Springside Academy, Chavous’ first gig in this world was chairing the board of Hardy Williams’ eponymous charter school, which later merged with Mastery.

Chavous later built her consulting firm around fundraising and lobbying for various school-choice advocacy groups, many of whom were deep-pocketed political backers for her former boss.

Her clients and allies say Chavous earned her own reputation in this sphere.

“As it relates to the charter world, there’s very few people who know more,” said lobbyist and former state Rep. Tony Payton Jr, who defends Chavous’ actions. “She’s raised a lot of money for charters.”

Chavous at one point held a $125,000-a-year part-time job with Students First Corp, according to state records reviewed by the Inquirer, a school-choice advocacy group bankrolled by Susquehanna International Group (SIG), a major Williams’ backer. She also worked for the corp’s political arm.

Around this time, Chavous founded a nonprofit called Sky Community Partners with a $1.3 million infusion from SIG. Sky, where Chavous still serves as board chair, serves as an intermediary for distributing state education scholarships to public and private schools outside students’ home districts.

On top of her charter lobbying, she has worked for a range of high-profile political clients, including former Mayor Michael Nutter.

To this day, Chavous remains a top advisor to state Sen. Williams, whose senate campaign has paid her firm more than $171,000 since 2017, according to campaign finance records. She earned $36,000 last year in that regard, despite Williams’ pivot to an ill-fated run for Philly mayor.

Mustafa Rashed, a consultant and spokesperson for Chavous, said maintaining Williams’ senatorial war chest is a year-round job.

“She does campaign fundraising, consulting and event planning,” Rashed said. “Even in an off year, he still has to raise money.”

Chavous has also entered the world of union consulting. Since 2017, her firm has received more than $78,000 from Laborers’ District Council 332’s political action committee, records show.

Ryan Boyer, Local 332’s business manager, said the union sought out Chavous two years ago for a newly created government relations position. She coordinates meetings and helps push the union’s job creation agenda in City Hall, Boyer told Billy Penn.

Asked about working with someone married to a City Councilmember, Boyer said that if anything, the connection gave pause.

“I found it was an impediment,” Boyer said, “because we’re going to force politicians to do their jobs.”

‘Everyone knows I married up’

The current indictment is not the first time the Chavous-Johnson dynamic has been questioned in the context of backdoor politicking.

But Chavous’ allies in both politics and education have remained unfazed. Some accuse the federal prosecutors working on the current case of painting a sexist portrait of Chavous — saying the allegations imply she needs her husband to get work.

“The fact that people think that we as women can only get ahead because of our man, that needs to drop and stop,” Naomi Booker, founder and CEO of Global Leadership Academy Charter School, which retains Chavous as a consultant, told Billy Penn. “I didn’t get to where I am because of my husband.”

Johnson echoed a similar sentiment hours after his indictment, telling supporters “I don’t need to help my wife. Everyone knows I married up!”

Chavous declined an interview for this story. Rashed, her spokesperson, said she has gone above and beyond to establish her career independently of Johnson’s and avoid bad optics.

“There have been times when she had to turn down business opportunities out of an abundance of caution,” Rashed said. “She has that added burden every time she operates in this space.”

It is unclear how the indictment will affect Chavous’ and Johnson’s careers as the case moves to trial. Johnson’s colleagues on Council have largely stood by him, and his influence over controversial zoning practices outlined in the indictment remains unchanged.

Many of Chavous’ clients stand by her as well. Boyer, the Laborers’ leader, emphasized the innocent until proven guilty presumption and said her work with the union always been above board. “If she’s convicted, that’s a different thing,” he added.

Chavous also holds numerous board positions. One of them is an unpaid post on the Commission on Women, an advisory board to Mayor Jim Kenney. A city spokesperson said “there are no plans to remove [Chavous] as this is an unpaid, volunteer position and she has not been convicted of anything.”

The quid pro quo allegations facing the couple are echoed in another criminal case being argued by federal authorities: the one regarding Local 98 and union boss John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty.

Buried in the 116-count indictment handed down last year was the transcript of a taped conversation between Dougherty and Councilmember Bobby Henon. Doc was trying to whip up support for Kenney’s soda tax, and Henon allegedly told him that one councilmember was holding out in hope of getting a “a little, like, hug” before getting on board.

“Let him know that once you get this stuff, there’s gonna be a ton of major league jobs, that his wife [is] more than qualified for,” Dougherty allegedly told Henon.

Though Johnson immediately denied any connection, it was apparent to many that his wife fit the description. Sources later told the Inquirer that Johnson and Chavous were indeed the hug-seekers.

Juggling a federal indictment with everyday life

Politicians under indictment are typically advised to avoid interviews, but Johnson and his allies held a press conference the afternoon the indictment dropped. Shortly thereafter, Chavous gave a personal interview to Inquirer columnist Jenice Armstrong.

“This is never a situation I ever imagined I would be in,” Chavous told the the Inquirer. “I’m trying to stay composed because I have so many other things on my plate. I mean, I still have a company to run. I still have work to do. I still have two children to take care of. I still have a household to run. I still have obligations with my church.”

She and Johnson live on Ellsworth Street in Point Breeze with their two young sons, 3 and 5, and their family dog, a 7-year-old Blue Cane Corso.

Chavous also has an array of other obligations to balance. She’s a Democratic committee person in the 36th Ward, a party post she’s held since before Johnson took over as ward leader, she has said.

She also has investment properties to maintain in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

Property records show Chavous independently owns three single-family rowhomes located within a few block radius. Two of them were purchased in the last two years, for a combined $333,000. City permit records indicate Chavous holds active rental licenses on each property. Rashed confirmed they’re being rented out.

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