Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson on trial: What to know about the federal bribery case against the South Philly lawmaker

The charges relate to real estate dealings, and also involve his wife, consultant Dawn Chavous.

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and his wife Dawn Chavous exiting the federal court in January 2020 after their indictment

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and his wife Dawn Chavous exiting the federal court in January 2020 after their indictment

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
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The federal bribery trial of Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson begins today, as the case built by an FBI probe dating back to 2014 is finally put before a jury.

It’s the second federal corruption trial of a member of Philadelphia City Council in months, following the conviction of Bobby Henon last fall.

Johnson has maintained his innocence from the start. “I am innocent,” he said in a statement after the indictment. “I did nothing wrong. I am the victim of overzealous federal prosecutors who have spent the last five years looking for something to charge me with.”

The three-term District 2 councilmember and his wife, consultant Dawn Chavous, were charged in January 2020 with two counts of wire fraud related to alleged real estate development dealings with two former executives of a South Philly nonprofit.

Rahim Islam and Shaheid Dawan, those executives, are former leaders at Universal Companies, a nonprofit that operates charter schools. Separately, Islam and Dawan also face a slew of other charges, including embezzlement and conspiracy to committ racketeering.

The maximum sentence for both Johnson and Chavous is 40 years in prison and $500,000 in fines.

As the trial gets underway, here’s a look at how we got here.

What’s Johnson accused of doing? How is Chavous involved?

The charges against Johnson, 48, and his wife, 42, involve two instances of alleged legislative actions taken on behalf of Islam and Dawn, the former Universal Companies employees, after they paid his wife, who was a consultant for the company.

One charge stems from a zoning bill Johnson introduced in 2014, to change the parking requirements and height maximums for the Royal Theater, a historic but then-decaying property owned by Universal at the time. The variance allowed for large commercial development on the site and warded off a threatened takeover by a local developer, who wanted to invoke a state law that allows interested parties to take ownership of blighted buildings by court order.

Instead, with new land use rules for the Royal Theater property, Universal was able to sell the location for 15 times the amount they had originally paid for it. Ori Feibush of OCF Realty has turned the site into apartments and a first-floor restaurant, Rex at the Royal.

The second charge also stems from an incident in 2014, when the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority attempted to reclaim properties at 1309-13 Bainbridge St. that it had sold to a group including Universal in 2005. The land had laid undeveloped, counter to an agreement Universal signed to construct single family homes.

Once a redevelopment official contacted Johnson for support, his wife, under contract as a consultant, emailed Islam to let him know of the PRA’s plans. Not too long after that, Johnson told the agency he wouldn’t support their reclamation, keeping the Bainbridge properties under Universal’s control.

The indictment states Universal paid Chavous over $66,750 while she consulted for the organization, and suggests she did “very little work” for the nonprofit.

Chavous has also maintained her innocence from the start. “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,” she said when the charges were announced.

Who are the other defendants?

Rahim Islam and Shaheid Dawan were the CEO and CFO of Universal Companies, an education management and development organization co-founded in 1993 by legendary music producer Kenny Gamble, to combat what the organization refers to as “urban decline.”

Islam, born in Philly and raised in the Tioga-Nicetown section of the city, was a founding member of Universal Companies, and CEO from the nonprofit’s birth until 2018. Dawan joined the Universal team in 1994, and remained on staff until the federal indictment.

The pair are facing 20 additional charges that range from conspiracy to commit racketeering to filing false tax returns.

What was Johnson’s path to elected office?

Johnson, a Point Breeze native, has said he settled on a life in politics after experiences at Mansfield University. Taking political science classes and Black Student Union trips to Chaka Fattah’s Graduate Opportunities Conference led him to think about how he could address inequality in his neighborhood.

When Johnson’s cousin was killed in 1998, he started the organization Peace Not Guns, aiming to provide alternatives to violence for young people.

After receiving a master’s in government administration from UPenn, he interned for former state Rep. Harold James and worked for AmeriCorps. In 2008 he was elected as state representative for the 186th District, the same office he previously interned for.

In 2012, he was elected to City Council, representing the 2nd District.

How has Johnson responded to the charges?

Two days after the indictment was unsealed, Councilmember Johnson and his wife pleaded not guilty, as have all defendants in the case.

Since the charges were handed down, Johnson has called the case the product of overzealous federal investigators. A few months after the indictment, Johnson and Chavous tried and failed to get the suit dismissed, arguing that there was no explicit evidence of a deal being struck between the four defendants.

The councilmember has been accepting donations to put toward his legal defense, with contributions coming in from various individuals and organizations.

Has his role in Council changed?

Not really. A week before being indicted, Council President Darrell Clarke issued committee assignments following the 2019 elections. Johnson was appointed to chair the Rules Committee, the panel that has a look at all zoning legislation as it works its way through Council.

In a similar twist of fate, former Councilmember Henon, who was indicted in part for foul play involving the Department of Licenses and Inspection, was appointed to chair the Committee on Licenses and Inspection.

Council members can rule by majority vote to remove a colleague as chair of a committee, but the recent charges haven’t compelled such actions, because of the presumption of innocence. Neither Johnson or Henon had to face a vote on their assigned duties.

Asked if the indictment would affect his oversight of zoning laws, Johnson said “I’m going to continue working on behalf of the people. I’ve always worked in decency and transparency, and I will continue to work that way.”

How long is the trial expected to take?

The trial, overseen by U.S. District Judge Geral McHugh, is expected to take at least three weeks.

Johnson and Chavous have retained Patrick Egan and Barry Gross as lead attorneys, respectively. Attorneys and staff from Faegre Drinker and Fox Rothschild will be working the case for both defendants.