Monday, February 9, 2015

Name That Party: Fattah 'campaign' donors helping to pay his legal fees...


Embattled U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah has been dialing for dollars as legal fees mount. No worry, the campaign is picking up the tab. ( CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer )
Embattled U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah has been dialing for dollars as legal fees mount. No worry, the campaign is picking up the tab. ( CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer )

YOU MIGHT expect a politician to see a lot of his support evaporate after the Justice Department publicly releases information linking him to multiple criminal acts.

Especially when the list includes orchestrating a conspiracy to repay an illegal $1 million loan by routing federal funds and charitable contributions through education nonprofits, securing a $500,000 earmark to thank one of your alleged co-conspirators and using $23,000 in campaign contributions to pay down your son's college debt.

Fortunately for U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, he lives in the City of Brotherly Love, where a politician in his predicament can expect to get . . . more money.

And re-elected.

Fattah - who cruised to an 11th term in November with 88 percent of the vote, despite the above accusations - has been dialing for dollars lately to replenish his "campaign" fund.

Truth is, Fattah, 58, doesn't do much campaigning these days.

Donors write checks to "Fattah for Congress," but a large chunk of that money is being used to cover legal fees. That includes those charged by his personal defense attorney, Luther Weaver, who has locked horns with federal prosecutors in a long-running corruption probe that has resulted in guilty pleas from two of Fattah's former associates.

Philadelphia labor unions and at least two fellow Democratic congressmen have been willing to help defray the costs. Call it a perk of incumbency.

"When we have friends that are in trouble, we embrace them because they're still our friends," said Pat Gillespie, head of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council. "None of us are without sin."

Gillespie was among the labor hosts at a Fattah breakfast fundraiser at Warmdaddy's on Jan. 29, when the House Democratic caucus was in town for a policy retreat. U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, a Democrat from Virginia, was the special guest. Suggested contributions ranged from $500 to $2,500.

"He was calling around himself, basically complaining about the legal expenses," a potential donor said of Fattah. "He said all this stuff is costly. He made no bones about it. But he did say he would be proven innocent."

Gillespie said he did not know how much money was raised. He said he had no problem with Fattah using it for lawyers, if that's what he decides.

"How he spends the money that he raises, that we donate to him, how those expenditures help advance him or preserve him doesn't matter to us," Gillespie said.

"While all this has been percolating, he got re-elected by an overwhelming majority. The people that he represents share the same opinion I have of him - that he's a valuable representative that we should try to preserve," Gillespie said.

Later on Jan. 29, before President Obama's speech to Democrats at the Society Hill Sheraton, former City Councilman George Burrell hosted a second fundraiser for Fattah at the 2200 Arch Street Lofts. The special guest was U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the civil-rights legend portrayed in the Oscar-nominated film "Selma." The suggested contributions were the same.

Fattah's office did not return requests for comment about his recent fundraising activity. Representatives for Scott and Lewis confirmed that the congressmen were special guests at the Fattah fundraisers, but they declined to elaborate.

Campaign-finance reports show that Fattah for Congress has spent more than $200,000 on legal fees and related costs in the past two years - including $70,000 to Weaver, Fattah's personal lawyer.

Last year, two members of Fattah's inner circle, former chief of staff Gregory Naylor and political consultant Tom Lindenfeld, pleaded guilty to charges stemming from an alleged scheme to conceal a $1 million cash infusion into the 2007 mayoral race. Fattah was a candidate in that race.

Prosecutors say in court documents that Fattah, identified only as "Elected Official A," was pulling the strings. They recently subpoenaed his district office manager to testify before a grand jury and are seeking seven years' worth of his private emails, the Inquirer reported last month. Weaver is fighting the email subpoena in court.

The feds also appear interested in a network of nonprofits that have orbited Fattah over the years.

Last year, a Daily News review of tax records found that between 2001 and 2012, nonprofits founded or supported by Fattah paid out at least $5.8 million to his associates, including political operatives, ex-staffers and their relatives. (Fattah's current chief of staff, Roger Jackson, received $223,000 from one of the education nonprofits used as a conduit in the alleged campaign-finance conspiracy.)

Fattah, who was first elected to Congress in 1994 and has directed millions in taxpayer funds to those nonprofits, has said he has never participated in any illegal activity. He has not been indicted.

Donors don't seem to be bothered by his legal troubles.

Last year, for instance, Fattah recorded hefty campaign contributions from local notables like Comcast executive vice president David Cohen and others at the cable giant, high-powered lawyers Stephen Cozen and Patrick O'Connor, and the campaign committee of state Sen. Vincent Hughes.

Even after the Fattah accusations became public in August, political-action committees for teachers, laborers, beer distributors, transportation workers, letter carriers, airline pilots, insurance agencies, defense contractors and other industries continued to contribute to his campaign fund.

Brett Kappel, a Washington, D.C., lawyer specializing in political law, said Fattah is most likely permitted to spend campaign money on legal fees.

"Because the investigation started while he was a federal officeholder, the [Federal Election Commission] would likely say it is a permissible use," Kappel said. "They've been pretty liberal in allowing the use of campaign funds for members to defend themselves."

Fattah's son, Chaka Fattah Jr., 32, doesn't have that luxury. He's set to go to trial March 9 on federal bank-fraud and tax-evasion charges - with no lawyer at all.

Fattah Jr., whose apartment and office was raided by the FBI in 2012, said he still has a $700,000 unpaid bill at the Drinker Biddle & Reath law firm.

"They're expensive," he said.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell and former Mayor W. Wilson Goode tried in 2013 to raise money for Fattah Jr.'s legal expenses, but apparently few people came forward. Fattah Jr. said last week that the effort brought in only about $5,000. He was indicted in August for allegedly defrauding banks, the IRS and the Philadelphia School District out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The trustee for the Fattah Jr. legal fund was Burrell, the host of the second Fattah fundraiser on Jan. 29. He did not respond to a request for comment last week.

Fattah Jr. said if his father is using campaign events to raise money for legal fees, none of that cash has trickled down to him. He's been doing his own legal research and has penned a series of lengthy, yet unsuccessful, pretrial motions.

When his trial starts, Fattah Jr. plans to represent himself before the jury. He does not have a law degree or college degree.

The go-it-alone legal strategy is much cheaper, if nothing else, Fattah Jr. said.

"My main expenses now are paper, ink and just time - and that's not really an expense," he said. "I intend to ask the court to consider paying for my accounting fees between now and the day the trial starts."


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