Feds: Chenault-Fattah recording could expose her to 'criminal liability'

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US CONGRESSMAN Chaka Fattah, right, and Renee Chenault-Fattah Crystal tea room 100 E Penn Square, Philadelphia, PA June 14,2015 Reuben Harley/Daily News

Ten months after Renee Chenault-Fattah finalized paperwork on the sale of her 1989 Porsche convertible to a lobbyist friend of her husband's, the former NBC10 news anchor continued to insure the sports car and keep it in her garage.

Now, federal prosecutors say they have a recording that proves Chenault-Fattah still considered the car to be her own nearly a year later and knew its January 2012 sale for $18,000 was little more than a sham.

The tape - which prosecutors intend to play next month at the corruption trial of her husband, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah - could expose Chenault-Fattah to criminal liability, they said in court filings late last week.

The recording itself - of a November 2012 call Chenault-Fattah placed to change the insurance policy on the Porsche - is relatively benign.

But in describing its importance to their case, prosecutors went further than they had gone previously in suggesting that Chenault-Fattah, once one of the most recognizable faces in local TV news, was at least aware of - if not an active participant in - a complex bribery scheme involving her husband and the Porsche.

Her "statements plainly tend to expose [Chenault-Fattah] to criminal liability for the false statements and documents she provided to the financial institution about the $18,000 payment," Assistant U.S. Attorneys Paul Gray and Eric Gibson wrote, referring to the audio and describing documents Chenault-Fattah and her husband filed with their bank to register the Porsche's sale.

They added in a footnote: "The government expects [Chenault-Fattah] to be unavailable to testify at trial by virtue of her assertion of the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination."

Chenault-Fattah has not been charged in her husband's case. And prosecutors have offered no indication that they intend to seek an indictment against her. They continue to refer to her in court filings only as "Person E."

Reached on her cellphone Monday, Chenault-Fattah told a reporter, "Sorry, can't help you," before hanging up. Her lawyer, Robert Vance, did not return calls seeking comment.

But since her husband was indicted on racketeering-conspiracy charges last year, Chenault-Fattah has rebuffed any suggestion that the car deal was anything but a "legitimate sale."

In a letter to NBC10 management in July, she wrote that she kept the Porsche in one of her three garages months after she sold it. She explained that the lobbyist who bought it - former Rendell-era Deputy Mayor Herbert Vederman - lived in an apartment, and that she had more space for the car.

"For a time I continued with insuring it since it was in our garage and wanted nothing to happen to it," she wrote. "I had it towed to be serviced in the spring because I wanted it to be in good shape . . . since this transaction had happened so hastily in the dead of winter."

She maintained she did not drive it during that time.

The station later quoted portions of her letter in a news story about its decision to suspend her.

(Chenault-Fattah parted ways with NBC10 earlier this year, although the station has not said whether she agreed to leave or was fired.)

But an Aug. 22, 2012, story in the Daily News appears to contradict her claims that she never drove the car after selling it to Vederman. It noted that she was spotted the day before, fueling the Porsche at a Sunoco station in Germantown, seven months after the sale.

And in their filings last week, prosecutors said Chenault-Fattah did not sound like a woman who had no intention of ever driving the car again when she called her insurance company three months later to alter the policy.

"We have the Porsche, which we take off of insurance during the winter because we have it just in the garage," she told the company in a portion of the recording quoted in government filings.

She asked a customer-service representative to remove her collision insurance but to make sure the car was "still covered" because "it'll be in the garage."

The Porsche is at the heart of one of the many alleged schemes that prosecutors say Vederman used to hide bribes he paid to Fattah.

As federal authorities describe it, Vederman offered the $18,000 in 2012 to help cover closing costs on a $425,000 vacation home that Fattah and his wife hoped to buy in the Poconos. In exchange, Fattah hired Vederman's girlfriend for a job in his congressional office, where she performed "little to no work."

Fattah and Vederman tried to hide their exchange of cash, the indictment alleges, by falsifying documents to show that Chenault-Fattah had obtained the $18,000 by selling her Porsche to Vederman.

Both Fattah and Vederman have denied the charges. And although prosecutors now allege that Chenault-Fattah knew the sale was faked, they offered no indication in their filing last week of whether they believe she knew of the larger machinations that allegedly surrounded the deal.

Fattah's lawyers - Mark Lee, Bruce Merenstein, and Samuel Silver - have declined to discuss specifics of the case, saying only that they intend to vigorously fight the charges at a trial scheduled to begin May 2.

Their client also stands accused in four other schemes of misusing campaign cash, charitable contributions, and federal grant money under his control to pay off debts and line the pockets of his family and members of his inner circle.

jroebuck@phillynews.com

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@jeremyrroebuck