Fattah convicted on federal corruption charges

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah leaves the federal courthouse after being convicted on Tuesday, June 21, 2016, in a federal racketeering case.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) was convicted Tuesday on federal racketeering and bribery charges, putting an ignominious stamp on the career of one of the region's longest-serving members of Congress and all but ensuring that his public life will be capped with a prison sentence.

Yet Fattah, 59, offered no indication of whether he intended to resign.

"This is an extraordinarily difficult day for me and my family," he said in a statement. "While today's outcome isn't what we had hoped, I respect our nation's judicial system. I want to thank the people of the Second Congressional District for the honor of serving them."

The verdict came after four weeks of testimony in which prosecutors painted the congressman as an arrogant lawbreaker who repeatedly turned to the money of others - taxpayers, charities, wealthy fund-raisers - to cover his personal and political debts. His lawyers did not say whether they planned to appeal.

While he had breezily dismissed the allegations and smirked through much of his trial, Fattah betrayed little emotion Tuesday as the jury foreman read out guilty verdict after guilty verdict - on all of the 22 counts he faced, including charges of fraud and money laundering.

Four longtime members of his inner circle - including Herbert Vederman, a former Philadelphia deputy mayor under Ed Rendell - were also convicted on multiple counts tied to crimes they committed to advance Fattah's political career. U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III set sentencing dates for early October.

Jurors declined to comment on their decision as they left the courthouse. But prosecutors lauded the decision reached by the panel of nine women and three men after 21/2 days of quiet deliberations.

"Chaka Fattah Sr. and his codefendants betrayed the public trust and undermined our faith in government," U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger said at an afternoon news conference with FBI and IRS agents at his side. "Today's verdict makes clear that the citizens of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania expect their public officials to act with honesty and integrity, and to not sell their office for personal gain."

Asked whether he believed Fattah should resign before the end of his 11th term in January, Memeger demurred.

"That's a determination that should be left up to the congressman and Congress," he said.

Under House rules, Fattah does not have to give up his office, but he is barred from voting or participating in the work of any committees on which he serves.

Nancy Pelosi, the party's leader in the House, did not comment Tuesday on her colleague's conviction.

Asked whether he believed Fattah should serve out the remaining months of his term, U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, chairman of the Democratic City Committee, said, "It's his call."

Even before Tuesday's conviction, it had been a tough year for Fattah, who arrived in Washington as a West Philadelphia political upstart, and over two decades became an established member of Congress' old guard and holder of a plum assignment on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

He lost his bid for reelection to State Rep. Dwight Evans in April's Democratic primary, just weeks before the trial began.

His wife, former NBC10 news anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah, though not charged in the case, saw her career end this year after she was linked to the sham sale in 2012 of her Porsche convertible - a transaction prosecutors said was intended to cover up a bribe to her husband.

And his son, Chaka "Chip" Jr., was sentenced to five years in prison in February in a bank and tax fraud case tied to loans he fraudulently obtained to fund a luxury lifestyle.

But while the younger Fattah's crimes stemmed from his extravagant taste in fancy cars, clothes, and apartments, most of the congressman's misdeeds centered on money he owed creditors after a disastrous 2007 bid to become mayor of Philadelphia.

Chief among his crimes - according to prosecutors Eric Gibson, Paul Gray, and Jonathan Kravis - was his theft of funds from an education nonprofit to repay an illegal $1 million campaign loan.

Two Fattah allies - Karen Nicholas, 58, the former executive director of the Fattah-founded Educational Advancement Alliance, and Robert J. Brand, 70, a family friend and businessman - were convicted of racketeering conspiracy and other counts Tuesday for laundering the stolen funds through organizations they led. Both declined to comment Tuesday.

Fattah was also found guilty of misdirecting federal grant money to a fake nonprofit in order to pay one of his political strategists, and was convicted of siphoning funds from his campaign coffers to cover college debts owed by his son.

Bonnie Bowser, 60, Fattah's former campaign treasurer, had been charged with forging campaign finance forms and other official documents to cover up many of Fattah's crimes. Though Bowser was convicted of charges including bank fraud and money laundering, jurors rejected most of the counts against her, including the flagship racketeering charge, after her lawyer, Ronald Levine, argued that she was merely following orders from her boss.

"Obviously, the jury saw her in a different and less culpable light," he said.

The case's most colorful charges involved a bribery scheme between Fattah and Vederman, 70, one of his most prolific fund-raisers.

Through cash payments to the congressman's children, college tuition payments for his South African au pair, and $18,000 given to help purchase a vacation home in the Poconos, prosecutors said, Vederman bought Fattah's support in seeking appointment by the Obama White House to an ambassadorship.

Vederman spent much of the trial appearing relaxed, even chatting with FBI agents during court breaks as his lawyers defended the payments as nothing more than gifts between friends.

"I'm shocked," Vederman said Tuesday as he left the courthouse and stepped into a waiting car.

His family members called the prosecution "unjust and overreaching" - a sentiment shared by former Gov. Ed Rendell earlier this month as he testified in his former deputy's defense.

"Federal prosecutors don't understand the political process," he said at the time. "They think everything is done for ulterior motives. They're very cynical."

Asked Tuesday afternoon to respond to that criticism of the case, Memeger, the U.S. attorney, was terse and direct.

"We did our job," he said. "We did it well. We followed the law. And the jury agreed with us."

jroebuck@phillynews.com215-854-2608@jeremyrroebuck

Contributing to this article were staff writers Julie Shaw, Jonathan Tamari, Aubrey Whelan, Mark Fazlollah, and Steve Bohnel.