The week of May 16-20 marked the start of former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah's federal corruption trial, one of the most closely watched political corruption cases in recent city history.
Fattah was an 11-term congressman, who recently lost his election bid to Pa. Rep. Dwight Evans in the April Democratic primary. Fattah was a member of the House Appropriations Committee, which handles all bills that regulate expenditures of money the government of the United States. It is one of the most powerful committees in Congress, and its members are seen as very influential in determining where discretionary spending goes.
Fattah and four close allies are on trial for being accused of misusing federal grants, campaign contributions and charitable donations to pay off Fattah’s debts and assist his political career.
On Monday, May 16, the opening day, Fattah’s lawyers began by saying their client was victim of two political aides who stole in Fattah’s name to pay off his own debts. The prosecutors on the other hand called Fattah a thief and a corrupt politician who was ready to blame anyone but himself.
In the prosecutors’ opening remarks, they promised a well documented examination of fraud committed over the years from charities founded by Fattah, federal grants and the congressman’s own campaign reserves.
One of Fattah’s lawyers said that the congressman did not have anything to do with the scheme of his two political consultants who worked during Fattah’s 2007 mayoral campaign, Gregory Naylor and Thomas Lindenfeld.
Both of them have said they secured an illegal $1 million loan from former Sallie Mae executive Al Lord on Fattah’s orders. And when they had to pay the loan back, the two consultants alleged that they followed Fattah’s lead in using taxpayer money, laundering it through an education nonprofit Fattah had founded and a business owned by Fattah’s family friend.
On the second day of trial on May 17, the trial focused on a $1 million loan that prosecutors have said was illegal from Al Lord, the now-retired CEO of Sallie Mae, a student loan financier. Prosecutors tried to trace Fattah’s financial need that drove him to Lord and the trial of embezzled funds the prosecutors say the congressman used to pay Lord back.
Lord, who was granted immunity, described his relationship with Fattah to the jurors, which started in 1998 and they quickly connected due to their common interest in increasing access to higher education. Under cross-examination from Fattah’s lawyers, Lord stated that he never discussed the specifics of the loan with Fattah.
One of the prosecution’s key witnesses against Fattah, political consultant Thomas Lindenfeld, testified on Wednesday, May 18. Lindenfield revealed that Fattah was the one who organized the illegal $1 million for campaign loans and also approved of the plan to pay off the debt by using stolen charitable and federal funds. Lindenfield, who had already pleaded guilty in 2014 for his role in the fraud, explained in his testimony that he obtained confirmation with the congressman at each step of the plan.
Lindenfield again testified for six hours on Thursday, May 19. Lindenfield reframed the defense’s questions to give the answers that he wanted, a classic political tactic. Fattah’s attorneys tried to use Lindenfield’s own words and political calculations against him to characterize him as one who would say and do anything to win.
On day five, May 20, the trial turned to charges against two of Fattah’s longtime loyalists who are accused of involvement in a 2008 scheme to use fraudulent funds to pay back the $1 million campaign loan. According to the prosecutors, Karen Nicholas and Robert Brand led organizations that misappropriated contributions and federal funds to cover Fattah’s debt.
Former executives of Nicholas and Brand’s organizations told the jury that they were not consulted about the contracts that the two supposedly created to devised to make stolen funds appear legitimate.
The trial will continue for a majority of the summer.
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