Judge denies Fattah's bid to have corruption case dismissed

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah leaves court on Friday, March 11, 2016.

A federal judge on Wednesday rejected U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah's bid to have his corruption case dismissed by relying on a congressional privilege meant to protect lawmakers' independence from interference from the executive branch.

The decision clears the way for the Philadelphia Democrat's trial on racketeering conspiracy charges to proceed May 2.

In his opinion, U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III said none of the allegations in the indictment against Fattah violate the "speech and debate" clause - a constitutional provision that bars federal prosecutors from questioning lawmakers or holding them criminally responsible for their legislative acts.

"Nothing in this indictment threatens the independence of Congressman Fattah acting in his legislative capacity," the judge wrote. "None of the present allegations, whether viewed separately or together, describes a legislative act."

The ruling was hardly a surprise. During a hearing last week, the judge lobbed question after skeptical question at the congressman's lawyers, and at one point wondered aloud whether their "speech and debate" challenge had been filed in good faith.

Mark M. Lee, one of Fattah's lawyers, declined to discuss the specifics of the ruling Wednesday. "We're working hard preparing for trial, and we look forward to telling Congressman Fattah's side of the story," he said.

The "speech and debate" clause was instituted to protect legislators from the possible threat of a president or other officials from the executive branch using their power over federal law enforcement to intimidate members of Congress.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) has also turned to its protections in his efforts to fend off corruption charges tied to his dealings with a South Florida eye doctor. The senator is appealing the ruling of a federal judge in Trenton last year that rejected his arguments.

However, in a 1972 opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the "speech and debate" exceptions were not intended "to make members of Congress super-citizens, immune from criminal responsibility."

Bartle quoted that opinion repeatedly in his findings Wednesday, noting that appellate courts have upheld convictions of other congressmen who promised to take legislative actions in exchange for bribes.

So while a congressman could not be indicted for introducing a bill on the House floor in exchange for a bribe, he could face charges for promising the person who paid him that he would do so.

"It is the taking of a thing of value in return for making the promise that is the crime," the judge wrote Wednesday. "Whether the member of Congress fulfills his promise, reneges on his promise, or does nothing is irrelevant."

In Fattah's case, federal prosecutors have said that they meticulously crafted their 17-count indictment against the congressman with those limitations in mind, and that they are ready to prove at trial that he made several promises to supporters to use his office to support corrupt schemes.

Prosecutors allege that Fattah accepted bribes from a lobbyist seeking a White House appointment and misused hundreds of thousands of dollars in charitable contributions, campaign funds, and federal grant money under his control.

In court last week, Fattah's lawyers focused their challenge on two aspects of the government's case - purported bribes from lobbyist Herbert Vederman and a $500,000 congressional earmark that prosecutors say Fattah promised to obtain to pay off a political debt.

Vederman, a former deputy mayor under Ed Rendell, who served as finance director for several of Fattah's campaigns, has been accused of offering bribes including more than $8,000 in cash, sponsorship of Fattah's South African au pair for an immigration visa, and $18,000 that prosecutors say was disguised as payment in a fake sale of a Porsche convertible owned by the congressman's wife, former NBC10 anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah.

In exchange, prosecutors say, Fattah worked tirelessly to convince Obama administration officials that Vederman should be appointed to an ambassadorship and later as a member of the U.S. Trade Commission. Vederman is also charged in the case.

In his opinion Wednesday, Bartle noted that Fattah's efforts on Vederman's behalf served a political, not legislative, purpose, and that members of the House play no role in confirming ambassadors or other executive appointees.

"Fattah was acting in a political role in seeking to win a political job for a political supporter," he said.

In the case of the earmark, prosecutors say, Fattah agreed to funnel the $500,000 in federal grant money to a nonprofit that he encouraged political consultant Thomas Lindenfeld to set up. The funds, according to the indictment, were meant to serve as payment for work Lindenfeld had done on Fattah's failed 2007 run for mayor of Philadelphia.

Yet Bartle noted Wednesday that in describing their transaction in Fattah's indictment, prosecutors focused on the arrangement worked out between the two men - not whether Fattah actually obtained the earmark as promised.

He did, though auditors scuttled the payment in 2010 before it was delivered over questions about the nonprofit. Lindenfeld pleaded guilty to his role in the alleged scheme in 2014.

jroebuck@phillynews.com

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