Kenyatta Johnson mistrial: How South Philly feels about their accused representative

A jury couldn’t agree on the councilmember’s guilt. His constituents are divided too.

Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson leaving Philadelphia's federal courthouse on April 14

Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson leaving Philadelphia's federal courthouse on April 14

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
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A judge on Tuesday declared a mistrial in the federal bribery trial of Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson and his wife, consultant Dawn Chavous, after a jury was unable to agree on a verdict.

Several residents of Johnson’s district said they had their minds made up before the trial began — and they don’t expect much to change because of it. One person told Billy Penn they thought the ordeal would strengthen support among Johnson’s base, while another said they think the lawmaker should step aside.

Johnson and 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.

Johnson spoke briefly to press after the judge dismissed the jury. “I want to thank all of my family, friends and supporters for just praying for us and showing us support during this very stressful time,” he said.

Prosecutors vowed to bring the case back to court in the future, a spokesperson from the U.S. Attorney’s Office told The Inquirer. Lawyers for the couple said the case “never should have been brought in the first place” and that they hope the government declines to retry.

“We are gratified that some of the jurors appear to recognize the government did not introduce a single piece of hard evidence that either the Councilmember or Ms. Chavous did something wrong,” said the statement from Patrick Egan, Johnson’s lawyer, and Barry Gross, Chavous’ lawyer.

Here’s how some of Johnson’s constituents reacted to the trial and the deadlocked jury.

The FB admin who expected a guilty verdict

Asked if the trial or the charges against Johnson have affected her opinion of him as an elected official, District 2 resident Siobhan Sullivan said: “Not at all. Not even a tiny bit.”

Reached after the mistrial was declared, Sullivan expressed shock that the jury couldn’t come to a conclusion.

Sullivan has lived in Point Breeze for five years and serves as an admin in the neighborhood Facebook group “The Bold & The Breezy,” which has roughly 6,800 members.

“Some people in that group are ride-or-die Kenyatta Johnson supporters,” she said. Others, a glance through the Facebook page shows, openly blame the councilmember for neighborhood problems that have gone unresolved.

Johnson himself is also a member of the group. Posts by his account, some signed by his staff, pop up regularly.

Sullivan has been monitoring Johnson’s criminal case, but not as closely as some of her neighbors. “I hear when the big headlines happen,” she said. Speaking with Billy Penn a few hours after the defense rested, Sullivan said she expected a guilty verdict. Much of what was alleged, she said, “has been so well-known and well-documented for so long.”

The neighborhood association leader who believes this ‘happens regularly’

James Gitto, president of the West Passyunk Neighbors Association, said his opinion of Johnson hasn’t changed much as a result of the charges against him, or the trial. If anything, by the time the defense rested, any hesitations Gitto had about criminal activity taking place were gone.

“This really lays it all out in a way I personally believe is criminal but is something that happens regularly,” said Gitto, who has lived in South Philadelphia since 2013, and in the city since 2009. He has been following Johnson’s trial very closely.

“It says a lot about how city-owned land is handled with councilmanic prerogative and their ability to really tip the scales,” he added.

He noted that he’s been outspoken about his opinion of Johnson and believes it’s been a detriment to his effectiveness as a community leader: “Unfortunately in the City of Philadelphia you can’t get anything done without the support of your district councilperson.”

Reached after the mistrial was declared, Gitto said he’s glad Johnson can move on from the federal trial “and get to work on projects to help his constituents.”

The staunch supporter who thinks the ordeal might foster a stronger base

Albert Littlepage, a Point Breeze resident for over 25 years, has been an outspoken supporter of Johnson and his family. After the defense rested April 11, Littlepage said he was “expecting a victory,’ noting, “I didn’t see any smoking gun.”

Asked if his opinion of Johnson has changed because of the federal charges, he said “unequivocally no.”

“The long-term residents I’ve met with and who have come to support him at the trial, and his church family, we all believe in his innocence and we believe in his character,” said Littlepage, who is president of the Point Breeze Community Development Coalition. “We provided the councilman with the information and he always sided with the community.”

Littlepage acknowledged some people in the district may not agree. “You always have different sides of opinions … especially with the gentrification of the neighborhood,” he said.

“I believe this will make his base stronger,” Littlepage said.

Reached after the mistrial, he said  he hopes prosecutors choose not to retry the case, and added, “I’m glad that somebody on the jury was listening.”

The attorney who is ‘disappointed but not surprised’

Patrick Rhine was unsurprised when Johnson first faced charges. After the mistrial was declared, he was “disappointed but not surprised.”

Rhine has lived in Philadelphia since 1999 and moved to Point Breeze in 2011. He tries to be involved, he said. He’s an admin on “The Bold & The Breezy” FB group. And he is an attorney, so he has been curious about Johnson’s trial, following it “pretty closely.”

“I think Councilmember Johnson has done a very good job of dividing people. When he campaigns he is very good at telling you what’s wrong and pointing a finger at who is to blame for it,” Rhine said.

But it’s not accurate to paint every long-term resident as a Johnson supporter and every new resident as an opponent, Rhine contends. It often comes down to whether that person has had a positive experience when seeking help from the councilmember’s office.

Rhine likes to engage longtime neighbors in discussion of city government issues. “They’ll parrot back some of Johnson’s talking points,” he said. But, he added, he has some neighbors “who have lived here their entire lives who do not support him anymore.”

As for his own opinion of Johnson, Rhine said it hasn’t changed much. Maybe it’s a little worse.

Reached by email after the mistrial, he added, “I wish the councilman would do the honorable thing and step aside gracefully out of Philly politics. He has lost the trust of too many constituents.”

The preservationist who sees the trial as a ‘wake-up call’

Faye Anderson said her opinion of Johnson couldn’t go much lower than it already was before the trial.

Anderson, who moved to Philadelphia in 2009, is a preservationist, a public policy consultant and director of All That Philly Jazz. While she does not live in Johnson’s district, she has been involved in the neighborhood because of her work. Currently she is pushing back against an effort to create a Black historic district on Christian Street because the district as it was initially proposed would be “trivializing” to Black history.

There’s always going to be tension between preservationists and developers, she said, and her involvement has shown her “the transactional nature of politics here.”

In a conversation with Billy Penn on day two of jury deliberations, Anderson discussed her views on councilmanic prerogative and its role in development and gentrification.

“It’s no more than a custom, but it’s a very convenient custom [that] councilmembers lord over their districts,” Anderson said, adding, “Those who support him will continue to support him.”

Reached after the mistrial was declared, she noted: “Mistrial does not mean ‘not guilty.'”

Said Anderson: “This is not a teachable moment. It’s another wake-up call about the perils of councilmanic prerogative and the lack of accountability.”