As trial winds down, defense says feds are desperate to smear Fattah

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah leaves the federal courthouse in Philadelphia.

Prosecutors accused U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah of engaging in a "white-collar crime spree" that stretched from Philadelphia to Washington as closing arguments began Monday in his federal corruption trial.

But defense lawyers shot back, painting prosecutors as determined to smear the 11-term congressman with thin evidence in order to justify an investigation that dragged on for years.

"They threw a lot at the wall and tried to make it look dastardly," Fattah lawyer Samuel Silver told the jury. "The prosecution desperately wants to hang some kind of crime on the congressman."

Silver's statements came as defense lawyers made their last pitch to the panel of four men and eight women, who after a monthlong trial will soon decide Fattah's fate.

The case already has cost him his career. Fattah lost a reelection bid to State Rep. Dwight Evans in April's Democratic primary, ending a three-decade stint in Washington.

In his closing argument, Justice Department lawyer Jonathan Kravis said Fattah spent enough time in the Capitol to learn how to cloak his crimes in sufficient explanation to lend the patina of legitimacy.

The congressman was quick, Kravis said, to turn to the money of other people - taxpayers, a wealthy fund-raiser, campaign contributors - to bail him out of financial crises personal and political.

"Congressman Fattah repeatedly abused his office for his own personal and political gain," he said. "He took bribes. He committed fraud. He even stole money from his own campaigns. But he didn't do it alone."

Throughout Kravis' argument, Fattah sat next to his lawyers, occasionally smirking and chuckling. His wife, former NBC10 news anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah, and daughter, Fran, were among supporters in the courtroom gallery.

The congressman and four codefendants are accused of schemes to misappropriate charitable donations, campaign contributions, and federal grant funds to pay off Fattah's creditors and advance his political career.

Most of the alleged plots center on money owed to creditors after Fattah's failed 2007 bid to become mayor of Philadelphia, including an alleged plot to steal funds from an education nonprofit to pay back an illegal $1 million campaign loan.

Fattah's lawyers maintain that their client was set up by two unscrupulous campaign aides, Thomas Lindenfeld and Gregory Naylor, who they say borrowed and then repaid the loan behind his back.

Both have pleaded guilty to roles in a conspiracy and testified against the congressman at trial under agreements they struck with prosecutors - a point that Silver made much of Monday.

"The only [witnesses] connecting Congressman Fattah to the supposed loan and its alleged repayment are Lindenfeld and Naylor, two convicted felons who have deals with the government," he said.

Prosecutors say Fattah also tried to pay one of his political strategists from the mayoral campaign by misdirecting federal grant money to a fake nonprofit he instructed the operative to create.

And even while Fattah for Mayor was struggling to pay off its other campaign debts after the congressman's loss, authorities say, he siphoned money to pay off his son's student loans.

"You know what other people do when their kids have a college debt?" Kravis asked. "They take out a loan. Their kids get a job. They don't buy a vacation home in the Poconos. Or they sell their car - not like fake sell their car, but actually sell their car."

That line, which drew nods from fellow prosecutors including U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger, sitting in the front row, referenced the other primary allegation at the center of the government's case.

Authorities have accused Fattah in a bribery scheme involving political fund-raiser and Rendell-era Deputy Mayor Herbert Vederman, who prosecutors say paid the congressman to buy his support in seeking appointment to an ambassadorship from the Obama White House.

The purported bribes include cash payments to Fattah's adult children, college tuition for his South African au pair, and an $18,000 bribe that covered closing costs on a vacation home the Fattahs hoped to buy in Pike County.

Prosecutors allege that the men tried to disguise that last payment by faking documents in the sale of a Porsche owned by Chenault-Fattah.

"Dollar by dollar, Herbert Vederman bought himself a congressman," Kravis said Monday, referring to Vederman as Fattah's "human ATM machine."

Vederman's lawyers, who say their client and the congressman share a long friendship, accused prosecutors of mischaracterizing gifts exchanged between them as bribes.

"Friends do things for one another," defense lawyer Catherine Recker said. "They do things without strings attached. The government theory won't allow for politicians to have friends, and that's an awfully cynical view."

The trial is expected to continue Tuesday with closing arguments from three other codefendants.

Karen Nicholas, executive director of a Fattah-founded education nonprofit, and Robert Brand, a family friend and businessman, are accused of allowing the organizations they led to be used by Fattah to launder stolen money used to pay back the $1 million campaign loan.

Prosecutors say Bonnie Bowser, the congressman's former chief of staff in his West Philadelphia office, falsified campaign finance forms and other official documents to cover up her boss' crimes.

All three, like Fattah and Vederman, are charged with racketeering conspiracy and various counts including fraud and money laundering.

As they closed their arguments Monday, lawyers on both sides of the case invoked ideals underpinning American democracy.

For Silver, Fattah's lawyer, that meant freedom from unjust prosecution.

"This case is not about the political system or reforming the political system," he said. "We might pine for the days when politics didn't involve money, but those days aren't here."

But Kravis stressed what he called "the most valuable thing in our democracy" - the public's trust in elected officials.

"Fattah," he said, "put that public trust up for sale."

jroebuck@phillynews.com

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