Back in court, 'Chip' Fattah seeks to overturn his conviction

Dressed in handcuffs and an olive prison jumpsuit, Chaka “Chip” Fattah Jr. returned to Philadelphia on Tuesday to urge a federal appeals court to overturn his 2015 conviction on bank and tax fraud charges.

He told a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit that a rogue FBI agent’s decision to leak damaging information about him to the press years before his arrest cost him his job, his income, and ultimately the ability to hire an attorney who could have mounted an effective defense.

“This issue caused by the government created a situation where I no longer could do my job,” he said. “I was fired. I was told my services were no longer needed.”

The argument was not new and -- judging by the skeptical questions Chief Judge D. Brooks Smith and Circuit Judges Thomas Hardiman and Cheryl Ann Krause lobbed Fattah’s way -- may not ultimately lead to Fattah’s success.

Still, the hearing – which came 13 months into Fattah’s five-year stint at a federal prison in eastern Michigan -- presented an unusual tableau.

Rarely do incarcerated felons get the chance to address appellate courts in person. But Fattah – the outspoken and unrelentingly confident 33-year-old son of incarcerated former congressman Chaka Fattah – has made clear since the day federal authorities indicted him that he was not a typical defendant.

During his 2015 trial, he acted as his own lawyer and adopted the unusual strategy of focusing as much on public perception outside the courtroom as on the legal maneuvering within. Whether wading gleefully into scrums of reporters during breaks in court or beating his chest over social media, he never passed up an opportunity for publicity - even of the unflattering variety.

That tactic proved unsuccessful as a jury concluded that Fattah had committed bank fraud, lied on his taxes, and participated in a scheme to fleece taxpayers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars paid to his employer, the for-profit education firm Delaware Valley High School.

It was a more staid Fattah who stood at the courtroom lectern Tuesday, volleying questions from the judges as a federal marshal loomed over his shoulder, clutching handcuffs.

A dubious Smith fired back as Fattah argued that were it not for the FBI agent’s leak, the press and his neighbors might never have found out about a February 2012 raid on his Ritz-Carlton condo.

“I suspect that given where your residence was, there are not a lot of search warrants executed there on a regular basis,” he said.

Before the hearing began, the appellate judges appeared keen to keep Fattah’s showman side on a tight leash. They limited him to five minutes to make his own arguments and appointed an outside lawyer, Ellen C. Brotman, to help support his case.

Justice Department officials had initially denied that they were the source of the leaks. But weeks into Fattah’s trial, Richard Haag, the lead FBI agent on the case, made a surprise admission from the witness stand that he had tipped off an Inquirer reporter to the search and shared other information about the case he was building against Fattah.

The resulting news stories, Brotman said Tuesday, cost Fattah his $12,000-a-month contract with Delaware Valley High and ruined his reputation, making it impossible to find another job. Without income, she said, he could not afford an attorney of his choice.

“There are leaks and then there are leaks,” she said. “This was months of sharing of information.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Gibson conceded that Haag’s leaks were “regrettable” and “inappropriate,” but balked at the idea that they had anything to do with Fattah’s diminished financial circumstances.

Fattah – who had no experience as an educator and no college degree – was grossly underqualified for the $450,000-a-year contract he held from Delaware Valley High and was unlikely to find a similarly lucrative opportunity, Gibson said.

And yet, Gibson stressed, Fattah had taken steps even before the raids to leave Delaware Valley and set up a rival firm to challenge the company for its contracts with the school district.

“There is simply no authority for the remedy that Mr. Fattah is seeking here – the dismissal of the indictment,” Gibson said.

The appellate judges did not issue a ruling Tuesday, but the hearing won’t be the last time they hear from the Fattah family.

The elder Fattah has signaled his intention to challenge his conviction last year on federal racketeering and bribery charges in a separate case that ended his two-decade congressional career.

He is serving a 10-year sentence at a federal prison in McKean County, Pa. His lawyers have not yet filed their appellate briefs with the Third Circuit. 

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