A bought politician or a bribery scheme invented by prosecutors? In the trial of Philadelphia Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, a jury will now decide | Business

PHILADELPHIA — There was one point that attorneys for opposing sides of Kenyatta Johnson’s federal corruption trial agreed on in their final submissions to jurors on Tuesday: There is no compelling evidence to prove that the member of the Philadelphia City Council accepted nearly $67,000 in bribes disguised through a consulting contract with his wife.

But when it comes to what the remaining evidence showed, the lawyers couldn’t have disagreed more.

As Assistant U.S. Attorneys Eric Gibson and Mark Dubnoff said, the government presented a case that, while circumstantial, left no doubt that Johnson had sold the powers of his office to two nonprofit leaders who effectively put him on probation.

“It’s the same way you know it’s raining,” Dubnoff said. “When someone walks in with a raincoat and an umbrella and they’re both wet.”

Johnson’s attorney Patrick Egan dismissed prosecutors’ theory of the case as a collection of ‘cherry-picked’ facts tied together to create an incriminating but ultimately baseless fiction.

“That was one hell of a story you heard from Mr. Dubnoff,” he said when it was his turn to address the jury. “The problem is that there is no evidence to support this story. Nothing. Not a single shred of it.

The back-and-forth came as jurors prepared to begin deliberations in a case that could end in Philadelphia City Council member’s second bribery conviction in less than a year.

And throughout it all, Johnson and his wife, Dawn Chavous, kept their expressions nearly impenetrable throughout the day of closing arguments unfolding in a courtroom full of their supporters – although sometimes the council member shakes his head and appears to laugh as prosecutors speak. .

U.S. District Judge Gerald A. McHugh is expected to instruct the jury on the law Wednesday morning before handing the case over to the nine men and three women who will decide the couple’s fate.

But unlike the case against former Johnson City Council colleague Bobby Henon, who resigned in January after his conviction in a corruption case involving union leader John Doughertythe Johnson case poses a more complex puzzle to the jury.

In this case, there are no wiretaps in which Johnson, Chavous or their two co-defendants – Rahim Islam and Shahied Dawan, the leaders accused of bribing them to the nonprofit and operator Charter Schools Universal Companies of South Philadelphia – discussed what they were looking at one another.

No witness who testified could say for sure that the quartet made a corrupt deal.

Instead, prosecutors over the course of more than three weeks of trial have built their case largely around business documents, invoices, bank statements and emails from a period of approximately 16 months between 2013 and 2014 and interpreted for the jury by the case’s lead investigator, FBI Special Agent Richard Haag.

They argued on Tuesday that the evidence – although circumstantial – was more than sufficient to secure a guilty verdict. Dubnoff spent most of his final argument connect the dots on a timeline which had been presented at isolated times throughout the trial.

In June 2012, he noted, Chavous — a well-known charter school lawyer and politically connected consultant — approached Universal Companies to offer her services, but at the time Dawan told Islam they didn’t. were of no use to her because the organization already had people who could do the fundraising and marketing services it offered.

But nearly a year later, Universal found itself in dire financial straits. Banks were questioning her 24-month losing streak, she was forced to let go of nearly every other consultant on her payroll, and on April 11, 2013, Dawan sent Islam an urgent warning, writing, “We don’t have more money! !”

The non-profit organization sat on two potentially lucrative properties – the historic royal theater on South Street and a parcel of vacant land near 13th and Bainbridge streets – it could help him get out of his financial difficulties.

But, Dubnoff argued, previous unsuccessful efforts to develop the two had shown Islam that if new development plans were to start, they would need the help of their council member.

A few days after that email from Dawan, Islam met with Johnson. He made an appointment with Chavous the next day.

And while defense attorneys were quick to point out that the government couldn’t say for sure what was discussed at either meeting, Universal offered Chavous his consulting deal less than a year ago. months later.

“If Mr. Islam really felt the need to hire Ms. Chavous on his own merit,” Dubnoff asked, “why did he meet with Counselor Johnson first? Why not go straight to Ms. Chavous?”

Initially, this contract stipulated that she would receive a flat fee of $3,500 per month – a figure she raised by a thousand dollars a day after a fundraiser for her husband in which Islam approached the council member to ask his help with a necessary zoning change for Universal’s plans. to redevelop the Royal Theater.

Johnson would eventually push the zoning bill requested by city council and again weigh in against the city’s efforts to seize Universal’s lots at 13th and Bainbridge streets after the nonprofit failed to meet the terms of a sale agreement requiring it to develop the property.

“You all know a deal was done,” Dubnoff told jurors. “Mr. Islam has agreed to hire Councilman Johnson’s wife. And Councilor Johnson has agreed to use his office to help Universal.

But lawyers for the four defendants fired back, each in turn pointing out where prosecutors were forced to make assumptions due to gaps in their evidentiary record and asking questions aimed at exposing holes they saw in the record. of the government.

If Johnson and Chavous were lining their pockets with Universal kickback money, Egan asked, where was the evidence of how they spent it?

“Do we have fancy jewelry, bags of cash, expensive vacations?” He asked. “No. We have a guy with student loans, a used car — a Chevy Equinox — and a $300,000 mortgage on a house in South Philadelphia.

If Johnson’s support for the Royal Theater rezoning bill had really been bought off, says Islam lawyer David Laigaie, why did the council member condition his support for the nonprofit lucrative working with neighbors opposed to the proposal to make design changes that cost thousands of dollars in extra work?

“If we had bribed (Johnson) to come up with this prescription, we wouldn’t have jumped through all these hoops,” he said.

Prosecutors had spent much of the trial calling Chavous’ contract with Universal a deception designed to funnel money to her husband and alleged that she did so. less than 40 hours of work for the $66,750 she received — an assessment that would place his hourly rate at more than $1,660 an hour.

“Who pays that kind of money?” Dubnoff asked at one point. “The criminals. Who is it.

But if the contract was really a cover, asked his attorney Barry Gross, then why did Chavous bother to do any work? He pointed out throughout essay pitches she had done for Universal to a network of wealth charter school fundersthe tours she had organized and the meetings she had attended on behalf of Universal.

“He’s not someone who acts like his contract is bogus,” he told jurors on Tuesday, adding, “This case is not about whether two prosecutors and Officer Haag think that this woman’s work has value.”

In the end, prosecutors and the defense urged jurors to use only their common sense.

Starting Wednesday, it will be up to the panel to decide whether common sense leads to a conviction.


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