Philadelphia Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, who received his Masters of Government Administration from Penn in 2000, is facing two federal charges for corrupt land sale practices — but he remains adamant the charges are unfounded.
Johnson and his wife Dawn Chavous, who received her Masters of Organizational Dynamics from Penn in 2004, have been accused of participating in a complex bribery scheme with non-profit Universal Companies that allowed them to profit off of various land deals that Johnson oversaw. If convicted, Johnson and Chavous would each face up to 40 years in prison as well as a $500,000 fine.
The charges follow a five-year-long investigation into Johnson's land sales by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service. Johnson and Chavous are pleading not guilty on both counts, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
"I am the victim of overzealous federal prosecutors who have spent the last five years looking for something to charge me with," Johnson said in a written statement.
Some in the community believe that the charges against Johnson do not go far enough. Ori Feibush, a developer and resident of Philadelphia’s 2nd District, which is overseen by Johnson, claims that almost every land deal made through Johnson’s office is connected to some form of monetary or political gain for the councilmember.
“It’s a sickening process through which he has sold his office,” Feibush said.
Feibush continued to explain that what he believes to be corrupt land sales have done significant damage to the district’s financial stability. For example, Feibush said his office once bid $4.4 million on a property that Johnson’s awarded to a different bidder for $1 million, costing the district up to $3.4 million in profit. Feibush believes this deal only went through due to the connections the winning buyer had to Johnson and his office.
In 2015, Feibush challenged and was defeated by Johnson in a hotly-contested City Council race.
Carol Jenkins, the leader of Philadelphia's 27th ward, which includes Penn, said while some of Johnson’s actions should definitely be considered corrupt, other cases are less clear.
“I would say some of it is in the grey area,” Jenkins said of Johnson’s land sale practices.
However, Jenkins adds that in certain instances, Johnson clearly connived to help associates buy properties for less than the market price.
“That, I think, is pretty clearly corruption,” she said.
Patrick Egan, Johnson’s attorney, believes the charges against the councilmember are unfounded and that Johnson and Chavous will eventually be cleared from blame.
“I think it’s very unfair," Egan said. "I think the Councilman’s excellent reputation is being dragged through the mud based on some innuendo and based on some connections that have been made for which there is no evidence. We look forward to the day when we are able to be vindicated."
Many of the problems associated with Johnson’s practices are tied to councilmanic prerogative, a term Penn Law professor Terry Gillen said refers to the almost complete power that councilmembers have in the land development process within their districts.
“In order for the Redevelopment Authority to sell a parcel of land or dispose of a parcel of land, City Council has to pass an ordinance,” Gillen said. “And that's by law. The reality is that in order to get an ordinance through city council, you need a councilmember to introduce it. And the practice is that the councilmember for the district where the land is introduces it. And that’s what people refer to as councilmanic prerogative.”
Johnson's spokesperson Ben Waxman added he believes the U.S. Attorney’s office intentionally muddled the press release detailing the charges against Johnson to make it appear as if he and Chavous faced more than the two charges they were dealt.
Universal Companies, the organization entangled in the indictment, declined to comment on the indictment.
At the time of publication, no trial date has been set.