In face of uproar, Fattah resigns effective immediately

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

Chaka Fattah resigned his U.S. House seat effective immediately Thursday, a day after Republican leaders balked at his plan to remain in Congress for three months following his conviction on federal corruption charges.

In a letter to Speaker Paul Ryan, the Philadelphia Democrat wrote that he had hoped to resign Oct. 3 - a day before his sentencing - to ensure an orderly transition.

"However, out of respect for the entire House leadership, and so as not to cause a distraction from the House's work for the people, I have changed my effective date," the letter said.

Fattah, 59, did not return calls for comment Thursday. He stepped down two days after a federal jury convicted him on 22 counts that included charges of racketeering conspiracy, bribery, money laundering, and fraud.

His decision ends a two-decade congressional career that saw him arrive in Washington from West Philadelphia as the winner of an upset election, and rise to become a member of the House's old guard with a plum assignment on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

And his departure did not come without a push.

Republicans were mounting a vote to expel Fattah even before he submitted a resignation letter Wednesday with his proposed October date. The Ethics Committee had sought access to transcripts from his trial.

Fattah's immediate departure spares his party the potentially embarrassing situation of grappling with that GOP effort while also preparing for next month's presidential nominating convention in Philadelphia, where Fattah was to be a superdelegate for presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton.

Local party leaders were hesitant to call for Fattah to step aside even after his conviction, suggesting that the decision should be left up to him.

Under House rules, Fattah could have remained in office through January, though he would have been barred from voting on legislation or participating in committee proceedings. Fattah lost a reelection bid for a 12th term in office in April's Democratic primary to State Rep. Dwight Evans.

U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, chairman of the Philadelphia Democratic Committee and Fattah's longtime friend, said Thursday that the congressman's resignation means he must give up his superdelegate status.

He also lost his $174,000 annual salary. His pension, too, appeared to be in jeopardy.

The crimes of which Fattah was convicted fall under the list of corruption offenses that under federal law would cost him his congressional retirement benefits. But a formal determination on that issue would be up to the federal Office of Personnel Management, which said Thursday it had not received a pension request from Fattah.

"He did the right thing," Brady said. "I told him to do the right thing."

Fattah's seat will remain vacant until a special election or the swearing-in of his successor in January.

By law, Gov. Wolf must call a special election within 10 days of Fattah's resignation. The law does not specify when the election should be held other than saying it must take place at least 60 days after the governor's order.

That makes late August the earliest an election could be held. One way to save the cost would be to hold the special election on the same day as the Nov. 8 general election. In that scenario, the winner of the special election would immediately go to Congress to serve out the remaining two months of Fattah's term.

When members of Congress resign, their offices remain open for constituent services under the supervision of the House clerk. Brady said Fattah had initially wanted to stay on out of concern for employees at his offices in Washington and Philadelphia.

In his resignation letter Thursday, Fattah touted his accomplishments in steering federal funds to education, housing, and city infrastructure, saying he was "honored to have had the privilege to serve."

But the Justice Department investigation that led to his undoing struck at the very work he has spent years holding out as his legacy and took down six members of his tight-knit inner circle.

Federal prosecutors painted Fattah during his trial as an arrogant lawbreaker who robbed an education nonprofit he founded to pay off a political debt owed to former Sallie Mae chief executive Al Lord.

The jury found that Fattah, through a political operative, took out an illegal $1 million campaign loan from Lord to bolster his disastrous 2007 bid to become mayor of Philadelphia. After losing to Michael Nutter, Fattah turned to a former staffer to help him pay back the debt with stolen money that had been intended to expand access for low-income students to higher education.

Fattah was also convicted of accepting bribes and misusing other charitable donations, campaign contributions, and federal grant funds under his control to line his own pockets and those of his family members.

His son, Chaka "Chip" Jr., is serving a five-year prison term in Michigan on bank and tax fraud charges from an overlapping case.

The congressman's wife, former NBC10 news anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah, left her job after prosecutors linked her to one of her husband's bribery schemes. She has not been charged with a crime and has denied any wrongdoing.

In a statement Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) lauded Fattah's 20 years in Congress but said House Democrats thought they had "a responsibility to uphold the highest standards of ethics and integrity."

She added that Fattah's "prompt resignation was the right thing to do for his constituents in light of the verdict against him."

jroebuck@phillynews.com

215-854-2608 @jeremyrroebuck