Fattah lawyers: A 17-to-22 year sentence for ex-congressman would be 'unnecessarily harsh'

Former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah was convicted in June of crimes including racketeering conspiracy, bribery, money laundering, and fraud for his repeated misuse of taxpayer funds, charitable donations, and campaign contributions to cover his personal and political debts.

Chaka Fattah's lawyers pushed back against prosecutors Thursday, calling the two-decade-long sentence they recommended for the former congressman "extreme" and "unnecessarily harsh."

Such a punishment, they said in a court filing, would be the longest prison term ever received by a member of Congress for corruption.

Instead, the defense urged U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III to consider a far shorter term and argued that the Philadelphia Democrat's misdeeds hardly compared to those of politicians found guilty in more serious cases.

"While it is true that Chaka Fattah now stands before this court convicted of serious crimes, he is also a man that has dedicated his entire life to the service of others," defense lawyer Mark Lee wrote. "As a legislator, he made the education of disadvantaged youth his life's work. And as a mentor and role model, Chaka Fattah inspired countless young men and women to service and self-improvement."

The defense's sentencing recommendation followed one filed Monday by prosecutors, who argued that Fattah deserves a sentence of between 17 and 22 years under federal sentencing guidelines. Fattah's team, in its filing, countered that the correct guideline range was 11 to 14 years - and suggested a far shorter term than that.

Their back-and-forth set up what is likely to be a contentious court battle Monday when Fattah, 60, will become the first member of Pennsylvania's congressional delegation to be sentenced in a federal corruption case since 1996, when Pittsburgh-area Rep. Joseph P. Kolter was sentenced to six months for covering up his theft of thousands of dollars in taxpayer funds with vouchers that claimed he used the money to buy stamps for his office.

Fattah was convicted on 18 counts including racketeering conspiracy, bribery, and money laundering tied to his misuse of charitable donations, campaign contributions, and federal grant funds to pay back his personal and political debts.

He resigned his seat under pressure from colleagues two days after the jury's verdict in June.

Since then, several witnesses have stepped forward volunteering to testify on Fattah's behalf about his long record of work in his West Philadelphia community and his three decades in elected office - first as a state legislator, as a champion for education and public housing reform, and then in Washington, where he became a leading advocate for brain research, scholarship programs, and antiviolence measures.

Dozens more have written letters, delivered to the judge in thick binders with pages signed by the likes of U.S. Reps. Robert Brady (D., Pa.), Gregory Meeks (D., N.Y.) and Donna Christensen (D., V.I.) as well as City Council members Curtis Jones Jr. and Blondell Reynolds Brown.

"I owe my current position and . . . the original inspiration and the audacity to think and even try to Chaka," wrote State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) in one letter quoted in the defense filing. "Without [him] I would not be where I am right now."

Prosecutors dismiss Fattah's resumé-touting, arguing that his trial proved his willingness to sell his office and undermine the electoral process.

And, they noted in court filings, he stole from some of the same causes for which he seeks credit, including the education nonprofit he raided to repay an illegal $1 million campaign loan from his failed 2007 mayoral bid.

Jurors also found that he agreed to misdirect federal grant money to a fake nonprofit in order to pay a political strategist, siphoned funds from his campaign coffer to cover his son's college debts, and accepted more than $27,000 in bribes from wealthy fund-raiser who was hoping to land a White House appointment as an ambassador.

"He chose to violate the trust of his constituents and the taxpayers to line his pockets and advance his personal and professional goals at their expense," Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Gibson wrote.

Still, Fattah's crimes pale in comparison to some of the eight other congressmen who have faced sentencing under federal anticorruption laws since 2000, Lee argued in his filing Wednesday.

All were sent to prison for eight years or less, except for former Rep. William Jefferson (D., La.), who was sentenced to 13 years in 2009 for soliciting millions of dollars in bribes.

"Greed and lining one's pockets with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars exists in almost all of those cases - an element not present with respect to Mr. Fattah's case," Lee wrote in his filing Wednesday.

In addition to the prison term, prosecutors are seeking $600,000 in restitution from Fattah and four codefendants, all of whom are also scheduled for sentencing next week.

jroebuck@phillynews.com

215-854-2608

@jeremyrroebuck

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