Chaka Fattah Case Could Get Awkward Fast for Democrats (Video)
Rep. Chaka Fattah has been under federal investigation for years, so for many of his colleagues the question was not whether an indictment would come, but when. But it could get awkward for Democrats in a hurry, as Fattah holds prominent positions within the party’s establishment and next year’s presidential nomination convention is being held in his native Philadelphia.
Within hours of being slapped with 29 counts — for racketeering conspiracy, bribery and wire fraud — the Pennsylvania Democrat had agreed to relinquish his post as ranking member on the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee, per rules and precedent.
The next question was whether Fattah would be asked to resign from another prestigious position: chairman of the board of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the education and policy nonprofit closely linked to the Congressional Black Caucus on Capitol Hill.
The CBC Foundation is preparing for its annual legislative conference in September, and CBC members and aides were wondering whether it would be unseemly to have Fattah serving in a leadership capacity for the big yearly event just a few months away. (Each year he has introduced President Barack Obama at the annual dinner.) The White House, unlike many House Democrats, declined to comment on the case.
Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., one of nine CBC lawmakers who serves on the foundation’s board of directors, said he expected there to be a change at the top — even though he presumes Fattah is innocent.
“It’s something that I’m sure we’ll be discussing,” he said, “but I’ve heard nothing as of yet.”
Fattah told CQ Roll Call Wednesday he would be in contact with foundation board members later that evening, and intimated there could be an announcement Thursday.
But one thing he doesn’t have to do, at least right now, is think about resigning.
The 11-term lawmaker was defiant Wednesday, smiling broadly in a scrum of reporters as he maintained his innocence in the face of allegations of illegal activity, which date back to his failed 2007 bid to be mayor of Philadelphia, plus false congressional campaign filings.
“I’ll stand by my original position, which was as an elected official, I’ve never been involved in an illegal activity or misappropriation of fund,” said Fattah, adding he has every intention of seeking re-election.
So far, no Democrats have publicly called on Fattah to give up his seat in Congress. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement Wednesday, “The charges in the indictment against Congressman Chaka Fattah are deeply saddening.”
She called him “a tireless and effective advocate for America’s hard-working families across more than 20 years of distinguished service in the House,” but declined to call for his resignation.
“To tell someone you have to leave Congress when you’re facing charges, especially when you’re contesting the charges, is to go against the grain of our justice system, which is, you’re innocent until proven guilty,” Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra of California told reporters.
During the first series of votes Wednesday afternoon, Fattah could be seen on the House floor chatting with lawmakers.
“Chaka! Chaka! Chaka!” Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., bellowed in his signature gravely voice. He was the first of several members to embrace Fattah, followed by Reps. Donna Edwards, D-Md., Peter Welch, D-Vt., and Johnson.
“I love him,” Rangel told CQ Roll Call. “I love everything he represents here.”
Rangel, a member of the CBC, is no stranger to weathering the storms of ethics investigations, including his 2010 censure on the chamber floor.
But he said he didn’t have any advice for Fattah for now: “I have no idea as to what the allegations are except they’re serious.”
Fattah’s colleagues in the Pennsylvania delegation on Wednesday afternoon — Republican and Democrat — were either opting not to comment or offering variations on the theme of “innocent until proven guilty.” CBC members were also keeping quiet.
“Congressman Butterfield just learned of the indictment,” CBC spokeswoman Candace Randle said of the group’s chairman, Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C. “He considers Rep. Fattah a good friend and awaits the outcome of this case.”
Johnson was more forthcoming.
“Things were swirling around about a year ago and there had been no action since then,” he reflected. “So from that standpoint I was not prepared for the news, and I am deeply saddened.”
Halfway through his 10th term, Fattah notified Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, that he had received a subpoena. In the March 2014 message, he acknowledged prosecutors in Philadelphia were seeking “certain documents” from his congressional offices, but Fattah believed some material was protected by congressional privileges.
The indictment comes exactly one year after charges were filed against the congressman’s son, Chaka “Chip” Fattah Jr. In the latter half of 2014, multiple members of the congressman’s inner circle were targeted by the Department of Justice.
Prosecutors allege Fattah Jr. defrauded several banks, the IRS and Philadelphia schools. He is also accused of tax evasion. Fattah Jr. is not a lawyer, but he has opted to represent himself, unsuccessfully seeking to have his indictment dismissed.
In August 2014, longtime aide and political consultant Gregory Naylor pleaded guilty to a number of federal charges in a campaign finance scheme. The case detailed Naylor’s work on Fattah’s failed 2007 mayoral campaign.
Fattah allegedly accepted an illegal $1 million loan, then created sham contracts and false accounting records to conceal the contribution and a repayment scheme. The nonprofit Educational Advancement Alliance, founded and controlled by Fattah, is implicated in the loan scheme.
Federal grant funds obtained for EAA were allegedly used for personal gain by former Fattah staffer Karen Nicholas, who was also charged in the indictment. Nicholas obtained $50,000 for an EAA conference that never took place. Instead, the feds claim she used the grant money to pay $20,000 to a political consultant, $10,000 to her attorney and wrote several checks to herself from the EAA’s operating account.
The indictment also alleges Fattah attempted to wield his connections to score an ambassadorship or appointment to the the U.S. Trade Commission for lobbyist Herbert Vederman, including, at one point, hand-delivering a letter to Obama. Fattah also allegedly hired Vederman’s girlfriend to serve on his congressional staff. In exchange, prosecutors say the 69-year-old Florida resident, also charged in the indictment, paid Fattah, including an $18,000 bribe that was disguised as a car sale.
Tamar Hallerman, Bridget Bowman and Samar Khurshid contributed to this report.