Armstrong: It's not fair, but black politicians have to be better

Former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah exits federal court after being sentenced to 10 years in prison Monday.

African American politicians are held to a higher standard. It's not fair, but it's the way it is.

Black corporate executives and lawyers also have to work twice as hard to get the same respect and recognition as their peers.

It's that old saying I learned at Howard University: "You have to be twice as good to go half as far."

In public service, the level of accountability is much higher. And former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah really let us down.

He shamed his office.

He failed the public trust.

He disgraced his city.

His conviction will forever eclipse any good that he ever did.

As a black politician, he knew better from the start.

"Black people in any profession . . . we have to make sure that we go above and beyond the concept of dotting every i and crossing every t," attorney Michael Coard said yesterday. "This is America. And there are things that white folks in America, elected officials or not, can get away with that black folks can't ... stuff that is wrong, stuff that looks wrong, and stuff that might be wrong."

And it goes beyond politics. Just look at what happens to everyday citizens.

"A white teenager can walk up and down the street with a hoodie on and his hands in his pockets. A black teen has got to think twice about doing that exact same thing," said Coard. "Not that it's illegal to have a hoodie on and your hands in your pocket, but again, this is America. You can apply this to the street and you can also apply this to the courtroom."

Yes, we all were left reeling Monday after Fattah was sentenced to 10 years in prison, one of the longest terms ever imposed on a member of Congress convicted of federal corruption crimes.

Fattah, 60, is scheduled to turn himself in to begin serving his sentence Jan. 25.

He actually got off relatively easy. His sentence could have been twice as long.

It'll be a sad end to a long, at-times distinguished career during which he served as a senior member on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

"I have to believe that this trial and sentencing was watched very carefully by African Americans," said public relations guru A. Bruce Crawley. "Blacks perceive racial bias to be greater in the criminal justice system than in any other institution in the country. So, of course, there was great interest in what just occured."

Before losing the Democratic primary in April to U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Pa.), Fattah had spent 22 years in Congress. I feel for his children and for his wife, former NBC10 anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah. I heard yesterday that his mother, Falaka Fattah, is understandably distraught. I can't imagine the anguish that they must be going through right now.

As I followed the news coverage of Fattah's trial and subsequent conviction in June, I kept asking myself: Why would he allow himself to get caught up like that? He's a smart man. He knew what was at stake: his job, his reputation, his legacy. Everything he'd worked so hard for was on the line.

Did he really think he could get away with his illegal financial wheeling and dealing? Chief among his crimes was stealing from an educational nonprofit run by some former aides to pay off an illegal $1 million loan he obtained during his 2007 failed mayoral bid. Did his long tenure in office make him so arrogant that he was above the law and no one would come after him? Other pols might play that crooked game, but he wasn't going to get away with that.

Chad Dion Lassiter, a founder of Black Men at Penn in the School of Social Work, pointed to the 2009 case involving former Pennsylvania State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo (D., Phila), sentenced in 2011 to five years for steering state contracts to individuals conducting personal and political work for him as well as looting a nonprofit for personal gain.

"The news for me is very upsetting," said Lassiter. "The way we administer justice in the United States is always along the color line, as W.E.B. DuBois talked about. Ten years for him? Less time for Fumo?. . .It's perplexing."

It doesn't seem right to me, either. In addition to his prison sentence, Fattah has been ordered to pay $600,000 in restitution. He's expected to appeal.

At this point, that's his only hope - outside of a presidential pardon. And we all know which president would have to be the one to do that.

@JeniceArmstrong

Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen

armstrj@phillynews.com