Congressman Fattah Indicted on Charges Stemming From 2007 Mayor's Race

by | July 30, 2015

By Chris Brennan and Jeremy Roebuck

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah and four associates were indicted Wednesday on racketeering conspiracy charges stemming from several alleged schemes to misuse campaign funds and hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grant money to further their political and financial interests.

The five schemes include accepting a $1 million illegal loan for Fattah's failed 2007 mayoral campaign from a "wealthy supporter" and then repaying some of it using "charitable and federal grant funds" that passed through a nonprofit founded and controlled by Fattah, U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger said at a news conference.

The indictment also accuses Fattah, a Democrat who represents parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery County, of seeking a $15 million federal grant for a political consultant in order to help "extinguish" a $150,000 debt owed to the consultant.

It also contends that the Second District congressman accepted an $18,000 bribe payment in return for seeking an ambassadorship or appointment to the United States Trades Commission for a lobbyist.

Fattah is also accused of misappropriating funds from his mayoral and congressional campaigns to repay a $23,000 student-loan debt for his son, Chaka "Chip" Fattah Jr.

In Washington, a smiling Fattah, 58, said to reporters, "I'll stand by my previous statement that I've never been involved in any wrongdoing; any unlawful activity; any misappropriation of federal funds.

"This is not Deflategate," he said, referring to the controversy surrounding New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's use of underinflated footballs.

Fattah added: "It's obviously going to be important to my constituents that this matter not be a distraction in terms of my work and I'm going to try not to have it be a distraction."

Fattah's indictment Wednesday could hardly have come as a surprise to the congressman or his political allies.

Federal authorities have signaled for years they had set their sights upon him through subpoenas issued to his office, legal fights over their access to his work e-mails and a series of cases they brought last year against the congressman's son and two of his closest political advisers during the 2007 mayoral campaign.

Throughout, Fattah has denied any wrongdoing and accused federal prosecutors of pursuing a personal vendetta.

Indicted Wednesday with Fattah were Bonnie Bowser, 59 of Philadelphia; Karen Nicholas, 57, of Williamstown, N.J., Herbert Vederman, 69, of Palm Beach, Florida, and Robert Brand, 69, of Philadelphia.

Bowser is Fattah's chief of staff in his district office, Nicholas is a former Fattah staffer, Vederman is a lobbyist who was a deputy mayor in the Rendell administration and Brand runs a technology company, Memeger said.

Vederman's attorney, Catherine M. Recker, said, "Mr. Vederman will plead not guilty and will defend himself at trial. The government has cherry-picked facts to support its cynical view of friendship and wrongly labeled it bribery."

Fattah and his codefendants have been advised of the indictment and will be alerted to when they have to appear in court, Memeger said.

Outside of his City Hall office Wednesday, Mayor Nutter called Fattah a political colleague of 35 years and a longtime champion for Philadelphia.

"I've said many, many times and I think it's true, Congressman Chaka Fattah has probably helped more children go to college than any other member of the US Congress," Nutter said.

Nutter declined to say whether he thought Fattah should step down from his seat.

U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the indictment "deeply saddening," and described Fattah as a "tireless and effective advocate for America's hardworking families." The congressman has stepped down as the ranking Democratic member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee, Pelosi said.

Fattah's lawyer, Luther Weaver, on Wednesday morning said he could not comment because he had not seen the indictment.

"Corruption like what is charged today really shakes public confidence," said Leslie Caldwell, assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice's criminal division.

Edward Hanko, special agent in charge of the FBI's Philadelphia office, said: "As citizens, we expect honest services from those elected to represent us at all levels of government."

He called the crimes and their cover up "a breach of the public trust."

U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Philadelphia, called Fattah's indictment "a major loss to the city" because of his work bringing home federal funding for education and science programs.

Brady said he spoke with Fattah on Tuesday, when they learned the U.S. House's five-week recess was starting Wednesday. Fattah seemed "upbeat," he said.

"We were like little kids in school getting out for summer recess," said Brady, who heard the news of Fattah's indictment on his car radio Wednesday morning. "It knocked me for a loop."

(c)2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer