In the culmination of an eight-year investigation, federal authorities indicted U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah this week on racketeering conspiracy charges.
Fattah, a 1986 Fels Institute of Government graduate, represents Pennsylvania’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes Penn’s University City campus. He won a Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award from Fels and delivered the school’s commencement address in 2012. Having served in Congress since 1995, Fattah spent much of that time as an influential member of the House Committee on Appropriations.
In the 29-count indictment, Fattah, 58, was accused of diverting campaign funds, federal grants and charitable contributions to bankroll his failed 2007 mayoral campaign and his son’s tuition at Drexel University, among other schemes.
Four of Fattah’s associates were charged as well, including Bonnie Bowser, the chief of staff in his district office.
Despite a history of federal inquiries into his finances, Fattah was reelected with 91 percent of the vote in the fall of 2014. In the 27th Ward, a smaller electoral area covering Penn’s campus and the surrounding area, Fattah earned 86 percent of the vote.
However, Democratic student leaders at Penn urged him to resign in the wake of this week's indictment.
“We have no tolerance for corruption or [the] misuse of federal funds,” Penn Democrats President and rising College senior Sean Foley said on behalf of the group. “We think he should resign immediately.”
Penn Dems last hosted Fattah on campus in April 2014, though he did visit Penn for a brief speaking engagement in February during the Liberty Bell Classic Speech and Debate Tournament.
Other members of Penn Dems have urged students to put pressure on Fattah to resign.
“We don’t deserve somebody that’s not transparent,” rising Engineering sophomore Michael Ramdatt said.
Ramdatt, a member of Penn Dems’ senior deputy board, had learned about Fattah's legal problems upon enrolling at Penn. He realized how many of Fattah’s associates had been charged by federal authorities without any noticeable dent in Fattah’s popularity within the 2nd District.
“According to the Justice Department’s documents, he’s been abusing that power for some time,” Ramdatt said, referencing the federal investigation into Fattah’s management of funds.
In 2013, Fattah was investigated IRS and FBI for an illegal $1 million loan he received while a 2007 mayoral candidate. In August 2014, Fattah’s former chief of staff, Gregory Naylor, admitted to stealing federal funds to pay off campaign debt accrued from Fattah’s 2007 mayoral run.
Even Fattah’s family members have been targeted by federal authorities. In March 2014, his son, Chaka Fattah, Jr., was indicted for falsifying tax returns in an unrelated incident. And, in this week’s indictment, Fattah’s wife, Renee Chenault-Fattah, was reported accepting $18,000 in payments for her 1989 Porsche Carrera convertible, in what the feds are alleging was a disguised bribe. She ended up keeping the car.
“We should say something as students in this district,” Ramdatt said. “If he’s not going to be forthright, he should resign.”
Local pundits think that Fattah, who has evaded blowback from voters for years, may still ride out this indictment.
“My guess is that the average voter doesn’t care yet,” said local politics expert and St. Joseph’s University History Professor Randall Miller. “Maybe, as the media drags this out, more voters will care.”
The charges, which allege widespread corruption and abuse of power by the long-term congressman, reveal at least a culture of impropriety between Fattah and his business associates. Whether or not Fattah will earn a conviction has yet to be seen.
“A lot of this is a ‘culture of the office’ type of thing,” Miller said. “That’s a long way of saying it’s too early to know if there’ll be a conviction.”
Only hours after his indictment, Fattah resigned his seat on the Appropriations Committee, a move some pundits think will hurt his influence among the Philadelphia political elite.
“One of the reason he was able to make deals was he was able to deliver on them,” Miller said. “Now, he resigned from that position.”
U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, the chairman of the city’s Democratic Party, echoed these views, calling Fattah’s resignation from the committee a "major loss to the city," according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Fattah had used his position on the committee to acquire federal funding for science and education programs, including the vaunted Fattah Neuroscience Initiative.
Miller thinks Fattah’s diminished status in Congress could hurt Penn and other Philadelphia institutions with decreased funding.
“If he beats this and is reinstated, he may not have that seniority [on the committee] back,” Miller said.
As for Fattah’s willingness to overcome his adversaries, legal and political, Miller has no doubts.
“A guy like Fattah, even wounded, will still be a dangerous animal.”
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