As Kenyatta Johnson’s retrial comes to a close, some constituents say they’d vote to reelect him

The District 2 councilmember, who represents part of South Philadelphia, is facing federal bribery charges.

Philadelphia Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson leaving the federal courthouse in April after a jury could not come to a unanimous verdict, spurring a retrial

Philadelphia Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson leaving the federal courthouse in April after a jury could not come to a unanimous verdict, spurring a retrial

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
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Update, Nov. 2: The jury has found all defendants — including Councilmember Johnson and his wife Dawn Chavous — not guilty of all charges.

After a jury couldn’t come to a decision last spring, the retrial is wrapping up this week for District 2 Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson and his wife, consultant Dawn Chavous, alongside other defendants. On Wednesday, prosecutors and defense attorneys began closing arguments.

All City Council seats will be on the ballot next year, including the seven at-large seats and the 10 that represent geographic districts — like Johnson’s, which covers a large swath of South Philadelphia.

If the jury in the federal trial returns a guilty verdict, Johnson will not be eligible for reelection. If he’s found not guilty, he is expected to run again. His constituents appear divided — but several say they’d vote for him, anyway.

For longtime Point Breeze resident Sarah Legacki, Johnson portrays a spark of hope for the community.

“I obviously [want] less, violence, less animosity, cleaner, safer streets. Kenyatta, Johnson works hard to make that happen. [He] comes out for community cleanups and just actually shows up to the block meetings,” Legacki told Billy Penn.

A block captain herself, Legacki is involved in several other community efforts: she’s a member of the Police District Advisory Council and volunteers at the Young Chances Foundation, a nonprofit that provides education and social connection opportunities four South Philly youth.

Asked if she thinks Johnson is guilty as charged, she expressed belief that he’s being unfairly targeted.

“No, I don’t…I mean, I don’t know the facts,” Legacki said. “But from what I do know I don’t believe it for one second. I just think he does so much good that this is — I don’t want to say a witch hunt, but I don’t know why he’s been the target.”

Federal prosecutors say a $67,000 consulting contract awarded by Universal Companies to Chavous, Johnson’s wife, was bribery in return for Johnson doing favors for the Black-owned real estate and charter school nonprofit. Specifically, the government alleges that Johnson introduced a zoning ordinance allowing Universal to financially capitalize on the redevelopment of the Royal Theater, and that he used “councilmanic prerogative” to ensure possession of a vacant lot located on the 1300 block of Bainbridge Street. The charges also allege Chavous did little or no work in return for the multi-thousand dollar contract.

Johnson and Chavous have denied the charges — officially called honest services wire fraud — and pleaded not guilty.

“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,” Johnson said after the 2020 indictment.

Christopher, a resident of the Wharton neighborhood, said he voted for Johnson in 2017, “because he participated in giving clothes and giving food for people” with drop boxes around the area.

His perception has shifted since learning about the trial and the federal charges.

“I mean, I didn’t know much about him before, but if that is true then he needs to step down,” said Christopher, who didn’t want to give his last name. “He may be engaged, but if he is doing these sorts of actions, then he is not helping the community, let alone the Black community.”

As a CDL certified truck driver, Christopher wants funding to be put into programs for people who want to pursue trade skills. He said the district doesn’t have a physical career center, and he’d like to see the councilmember help make it happen.

“A lot of people don’t have diplomas and they need to advertise for EOP to get a diploma. A physical career center would help a lot with that,” Christopher said.

If Johnson is found guilty, he faces federal charges up to $500,000 and a sentence of up to 40 years. Christopher said if it’s a not guilty verdict, the councilmember could get his vote — despite what he thinks of the charges.

“I may vote for him, but I need to learn more,” the truck driver said. “If bribes are helping the Black community, then perhaps.”

Lauri Haines, a psychotherapist, has resided in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood for the past 11 years but said she mostly stays out of politics.

“I’m not involved. I think that my tendency to get involved with anything or to have a strong opinion is when there are really important social issues that I believe in or I agree with on the line,” Haines said, explaining that this is not one of those times.

Haines confirmed she is fully familiar with Johnson’s retrial and believes “he is probably guilty” but said she’d also probably support his reelection.

“I think that you don’t really bring a trial against somebody without a significant amount of evidence,” Haines said, “However, I think he is the antithesis of divisive. That’s why I voted for him. I’m not taking into consideration the other things, whether they’re true or not … I mean, I’m voting on what I see him doing.”

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