A federal judge on Tuesday urged U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, who says he is more focused on raising money for his reelection campaign than on his corruption trial, to rethink his priorities.
U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III issued the warning as Fattah's lawyers sought to be removed from his case, saying he had not paid their legal bills in nearly five months.
"I think you need to take this matter seriously and think hard and fast about your priorities," the judge told the Philadelphia Democrat.
But despite facing a potentially career-ending trial on racketeering charges and dwindling financial reserves, Fattah assured the court that he was confident he could quickly find attorneys from a larger firm that would be happy to take on his case.
"As a person who has lived a life without blemish, I don't think there's any suggestion I'm not going to pay my bills," he told Bartle.
Outside the courthouse, Fattah suggested that Bartle had misunderstood what he meant when he said his current focus was on raising money for the April 26 Democratic primary and that he would worry about paying his lawyers later.
"I'm not suggesting that I'm not taking this matter seriously," he said. "But one thing has to come after another, and you have to make rational decisions. We don't think much of the allegations, but this is an important matter."
Fattah, 59, is accused of accepting bribes and misusing campaign cash, charitable donations, and grant money under his control to line the pockets of family members and political allies.
Bartle did not make any ruling Tuesday on whether he would allow Fattah's legal team to abandon the case. But he expressed concern that any shake-up could set his trial schedule back by months.
Prosecutors have estimated that the trial could take six to eight weeks and have handed over more than 900,000 pages of evidence for the defense team to review.
"It's a little like holding . . . the court hostage," Bartle said. "I have no control over when this hypothetical new attorney would show up."
Fattah's lawyers - Kevin V. Mincey, Thomas O. Fitzpatrick, Riley H. Ross III, and Sabrei M. Parker - said Tuesday that a larger firm might be willing to offer Fattah a deferred payment plan but that they could not afford to float his debts.
After an initial $100,000 deposit in August, Mincey said, Fattah has missed several deadlines on the payment plan they established.
Still, they offered to stay on for a few more weeks until Fattah could hire new lawyers.
"I don't think this is some devious backdoor way by Chaka Fattah to delay the trial," Mincey said. "I think his financial woes are very real."
Fattah said he had paid more than $300,000 in legal bills since he and members of his family came under investigation nine years ago.
With a congressional salary of $174,000 a year, he does not qualify for a court-appointed lawyer. His wife, Renee Chenault-Fattah, is on leave from her job as a news anchor for NBC10. Her salary has not been made public.
A legal defense fund Fattah launched last year has drawn limited contributions.
A Sept. 30 filing to the IRS reported the fund's balance at $9,000 and showed Fattah had previously lent it $85,000 from his own pocket and $5,000 from his political action committee. His office did not respond to a request for an updated total Tuesday.
Fattah has struggled to finance his run for a 12th term in office in a race that has drawn four Democratic challengers since he was charged.
Federal filings show he raised less than $10,000 in the three months after his July indictment, compared with the $69,000 and $72,000 he reported in the two previous quarters.
As of October, his campaign was down to just $822, when cash and debts were tallied.
Facing his own dire financial straits, his son - Chaka "Chip" Fattah Jr. - opted to represent himself in a separate bank and tax fraud trial last year. He was convicted on 22 counts and faces sentencing by Bartle next week.
On Tuesday, Bartle sought to ensure that Fattah Sr. was not considering a similar plan.
"You're certainly not planning to represent yourself, are you?" he asked.
Fattah replied: "I am not."