In a highly unusual legal case, a U.S. District Court judge on Friday morning rejected the request of the top prosecutor in Philadelphia to allow three convicted defendants to plead guilty to lesser charges and be released after serving less than a year each in prison.
Judge Eduardo Robreno said prosecutors had made a “180-degree turn” on their position when they tried the case in 2010.
Robreno said the deal offered to Chris Wright, who was chief of staff to former City Councilman Jack Kelly, and two of Kelly’s political supporters was too lenient on jail time and sent a signal that public corruption could be taken lightly.
Wright, developer Ravinder Chawla and attorney Andy Teitelman have to return to court on Monday and chose one of the three options: They can be retried, they can plead guilty with no guarantee on what their prison sentence could be or they could continue with an appeal on what information the prosecutors can use against them in a retrial.
Robreno was especially harsh on U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger, saying that federal prosecutors had “trumpeted this as a public-corruption case” to the people of Philadelphia and must now explain why it was not. He said the prosecutors wanted him to hand them a "fig leaf," to cover their actions in the case.
Robreno, who had ordered that Memeger or a "senior designee" attend the hearing, asked before his ruling what message the deal would send the people of Philadelphia about public corruption. He noted that the prosecutors could just dismiss the case if they felt they should not go forward.
"Dismissing the case sends an even worse message," Memeger told the judge. "The defendants need to be held accountable for their conduct."
Memeger and attorneys for the three men spoke several times about "finality," saying they wanted to put an end to a case that started as an investigation in 2008. Memeger also cited his office's busy work load and recent reductions in the federal budget.
Lisa Mathewson, Wright's attorney, said the new deal was proof that the original charges of bribery were off-base. She said having the charges dismissed would be the best option.
"They need to be done," Mathewson said of the three defendants. "They need to move on with their lives."
The three were sentenced to prison time in 2009 for deals in which Wright used his City Hall connections to help Chawla and Teitelman with real-estate, zoning and tax issues. In return, Wright got free legal service and an apartment.
Chawla was one of Kelly's most generous campaign contributors. Teitelman was an attorney for Chawla's real estate business and treasurer for Kelly's political campaigns.
They got out on bail in 2010 after the Supreme Court struck down part of a law used to convict them. Their retrial had been scheduled to begin Monday before Friday's developments.
Kelly, who aided the FBI with the investigation, was not charged. He chose not to run for reelection in 2011.