Pennsylvania congressman convicted in racketeering case


PHILADELPHIA (AP) — In his heyday, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah flew with the president on Air Force One, doled out millions in science and education grants from his ranking perch on the House Appropriations Committee and graced galas back home in Philadelphia on the arm of his elegant TV anchor wife.

But on Tuesday, Fattah’s 30-year political career appeared in tatters after a federal jury convicted him of financial schemes detailed in a racketeering indictment.

His namesake son is already serving a five-year term in an overlapping case that largely stemmed from the son’s excessive lifestyle. Chaka “Chip” Fattah Jr., a college dropout, lived in a Ritz Carlton condominium while holding himself out as a high-end concierge.

The father’s Achilles heel was not the luxe life so much as a losing game of political chess. Fattah decided in 2007 to return home and run for mayor, and he was the early favorite as the city’s longtime congressman. But the competition proved tougher than expected, and his campaign soon hit a snag amid new campaign finance limits.

The jury found Tuesday that Fattah took an illegal $1 million loan from a friend, former Sallie Mae chairman Albert Lord. Fattah finished fourth in the race and found himself scrambling when Lord called in the debt.

Fattah used federal grant money to repay some of the money, routing it through a campaign consultant, the jury found.

Two of Fattah’s political consultants, Gregory Naylor and Thomas Lindenfeld, pleaded guilty and testified against Fattah. Fattah’s lawyers pinned the scheme on them.

“Well, it’s a tough day, but I do want to thank the jurors for their service,” Fattah, 59, said as he left the courtroom. He said he would discuss his options with his lawyers. He would not say if he would resign his office.

The Democrat had been in Congress since 1995 after a decade in the Pennsylvania statehouse. But he lost the April primary and his bid for his 12th term. His current term ends Jan. 2.

Fattah was also convicted of misusing federal grant money and charitable funds. He had little reaction to the verdict, except for the bemused smile he frequently sported during the trial.

He will remain free on bail. Sentencing is Oct. 4.

Four co-defendants, including former staff members who worked on his campaign or an educational nonprofit he started, were convicted of at least some counts. Their lawyers declined to comment afterward.

Fattah’s wife, Philadelphia anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah, wasn’t in court for the verdict, though she attended closing arguments last week.

She was cited in the case over the sham sale of her Porsche, which the jury agreed was a bribe from co-defendant Herbert Vederman, a former deputy mayor keen on scoring an ambassadorship. But she was never charged with wrongdoing, and she called the sale legitimate.

She took a leave after her husband’s indictment and then quit the station in February.

Chip Fattah, who represented himself at trial, was convicted on bank and tax fraud charges. A jury also found he took part in a scheme as a subcontractor to defraud the Philadelphia school district.

Lawyers for the congressman acknowledged that he might have been in financial trouble after the costly mayoral bid, but they said any help from friends amounted to gifts, not bribes.

Many of them came from Vederman, who also helped support Fattah’s South African nanny and paid $18,000 for Fattah’s wife’s Porsche so the couple could put money down on a Poconos vacation home.

“The nanny, the Porsche and the Poconos, they weren’t part of a bribery scheme,” Fattah lawyer Samuel Silver said in closing arguments. “Those were all overreaches by the prosecution.”

The other convicted co-defendants are Vederman, of Palm Beach, Florida; Bonnie Bowser, of Philadelphia, who ran his district office; Karen Nicholas, of Williamstown, New Jersey, who ran the education nonprofit Fattah started; and Robert Brand, of Philadelphia, a businessman married to a former Fattah staffer.

Fattah stepped down as the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee on commerce, justice and science when he was indicted last year.

Under the House’s code of conduct, a convicted lawmaker is not to vote if the punishment for his conviction may be two or more years’ imprisonment. The racketeering count alone carries up to 20 years in prison.

Before Fattah’s conviction, the House Ethics committee impaneled an investigative subcommittee and, at the request of the Justice Department, deferred action.

A senior Democratic aide said it wouldn’t be unusual for Justice to renew that request of the Ethics panel to defer action until appeals are over. The aide wasn’t authorized to speak publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

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Associated Press writer Donna Cassata in Washington contributed to this report.

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