The Weekly Brief: Everything You Need to Know About the Indictment of Chaka Fattah

What happened and what it means.

Chaka Fattah | Photo by Matt Rourke/AP

Chaka Fattah | Photo by Matt Rourke/AP

It took almost a year after his son and former chief of staff were indicted, but the other shoe dropped on Congressman Chaka Fattah this week, as federal prosecutors slammed him with an array of corruption charges, most of it connected to his ill-fated 2007 mayoral bid. Here’s what you need to know…

Why is this a big deal?

Chaka Fattah is one of the most consequential political figures in Philadelphia’s modern history. The Democrat has represented Pennsylvania’s 2nd Congressional District since 1995. But it’s his work in the city — building a grassroots movement that helped African Americans claim their fair share of political power — that has probably been most consequential. As a Philly Mag 2007 profile of Fattah put it:

Over the past 30 years, you see, Chaka Fattah, 50, has been one of the most dynamic and thoughtful political figures in the city. He has also been one of the most ambitious. That ambition has been responsible for more than its share of good: It’s helped the city sidestep financial ruin, helped countless low-income kids stay on track for college, and secured millions of dollars for local scholarships. It has taken Fattah from rabble to respectability, from obscurity to celebrity, from a West Philly rowhouse to an East Falls manse he shares with his TV anchor wife, Renee Chenault-Fattah. But it has done other things, too, things that aren’t particularly noble or pure or good: It has transformed Fattah from outsider to insider, from reformer to player, from someone who once idealistically raged against the machine to someone who has hackishly defended its most conspicuous sins.

What does the indictment say?

Fattah was charged on 29 counts — including conspiracy, bribery and racketeering — for allegedly participating in a number of schemes. The feds say he illegally directed federal funds to help pay off an illegal campaign loan, misused campaign funds to pay off his son’s student loans, and accepted a bribe in exchange for trying to land an ambassadorship for a lobbyist friend. Read the indictment here.

Also charged were three longtime Fattah associates and Herbert Vederman, a former deputy mayor and big time political donor. Vederman is the one alleged to have bribed Fattah to land that ambassadorship.

What are indictment skeptics saying?

But how solid is the actual indictment? Fattah has dismissed it, telling Newsworks “I am fully committed to representing this district for another decade.” And at least two journalists read the indictment and came away underwhelmed. Dave Davies, who’s examined more than his share of indictments over the years, wrote “it struck me how few places there were where Fattah personally gave instructions or was apprised of details. That might change if the four others charged with Fattah plead guilty and cooperate with the government. We’ll see.” At Forbes, Philadelphia-based tax journalist Kelley Phillis Erb wrote:

I was pretty shocked at this indictment. Not because I didn’t see it coming because we all did. And not because of what was in it because I expected allegations of bribery and racketeering. I was really taken aback by what wasn’t in it. I expected more. It’s been years of raids, subpoenas, allegations and lawsuits. And the indictment to me felt pretty light. After all of this time, all of the investigations, the allegations that bribery was rampant? The final indictment didn’t have the heft I expected. I didn’t come away thinking, “Wow.” More of a “Hmm.”

Who will replace Fattah, and how?

Immediately, speculation began — or resumed, more accurately — over who might replace Fattah, if and when he steps down from Congress. Citified’s Holly Otterbein had the definitive story on the potential candidates, and the depressing realities of the ward-leader dominated process that is a special election. Who might consider a bid? Lots of big names are being bandied about, from Mayor Nutter, to district attorney Seth Williams, to State Rep. Brian Sims, to Council President Darrell Clarke, to State Senator Vince Hughes, to former mayoral candidate Doug Oliver … pretty much everyone, really.

What about NBC10 anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah?

The longtime NBC10 anchor, who is Chaka Fattah’s wife, is not named or charged in the indictment, but she makes an appearance nonetheless as “Person E.” The indictment alleges that Chenault-Fattah fraudulently sold a Porsche to Vederman (the ambassadorship hunting guy) for $18,000. What made it fraudulent? Chenault-Fattah kept the Porsche; or so the indictment alleges. Cheanult-Fattah says that’s not true, that she was holding onto the Porsche for Vederman because he lived in an apartment. She has gone on voluntary leave from NBC10.

What’s the reaction been?

Few if any Democratic politicos in town rushed to condemn Fattah. Nutter, who beat Fattah in that 2007 election, proclaimed it a “very, very sad moment” for Philadelphia, Fattah and his family. Nutter said of Fattah: “this is a person who has served this city and this nation well.” Other politicos said much the same. Democratic mayoral nominee Jim Kenney declined to weigh in on whether or not Fattah should resign. “He doesn’t need my advice,” Kenney told the Inquirer.

Pundits and editorial boards were not so restrained. The Inquirer editorial board has already called for his resignation. The Daily News ed board compared Fattah to Vince Fumo. Veteran political columnist John Baer lamented the “pandemic of public corruption,” while Jeremy Nowak wrote “it is time to take stock and clean house.”