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May 16, 2016

Being on the Fattah jury is the least enviable job in Philly

The case against (and for) the congressman and four co-defendants shapes up be a confusing mess of conflicting theories

At 9:37 a.m. Monday, 18 jurors – including alternates – made their way into a packed courtroom on the 16th floor of the James A. Byrne U.S. Courthouse to assume their roles in what may become the most crucial chapter of Chaka Fattah’s long-evolving Philadelphia story.

Waiting for them at tables on the frontlines of U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III’s domain were Fattah, his four co-defendants, the 14 attorneys representing them in the racketeering and conspiracy trial and a trio of federal prosecutors.

After a roughly 20-minute introductory address from Bartle, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Gray launched the government’s effort to convince those jurors – split evenly by gender, but overwhelmingly white – that Fattah sat atop an “enterprise” with an explicit intent to steal “from federal agencies, from taxpayers [and] from nonprofit groups he created to pay his political debts.”

By the time court recessed for lunch three hours later, they’d heard opening arguments from Gray and attorneys representing Fattah and co-defendants Herbert Vederman and Robert Brand. (Attorneys for co-defendants Karen Nicholas and Bonnie Bowser were set to have their initial say after the lunch break ended at 1:45 p.m.)

Those 18 jurors would need extrasensory perception or a Ph.D. in Psychology to make sense of everything they’ll hear in Courtroom 16A.

It was already clear that those 18 jurors who put their lives on hold for a few weeks will be subjected to such widely conflicting accounts that they’d need extrasensory perception or a Ph.D. in psychology to make sense of everything they’ll hear in Courtroom 16A.

Sure, the informational sample size is admittedly small; it’s just a few hours of a trial expected to last a few weeks, after all. But input from 17 attorneys can muddy even the simplest of concepts, even on a remedial day.

When the sides offer such wildly divergent versions ascribed to motivations behind actions, and with testimony reliant upon the word of two witnesses who flipped against the lead defendant, well, if I was on that jury, I’d dread going to court each day more than Fattah himself. 

Related contentRead the federal indictment

This, even though I didn’t lose a re-election bid for my 12th term on Capitol Hill, see my son sent to prison for five years after a fraud conviction and know that my wife left her high-profile TV-news anchoring job, in part because of these travails, since the turn of February.

Here’s what they heard during the first few hours of trial:

With U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger looking on, Gray came out of the gates alleging that the case is about Fattah abusing his office (and campaign donors) through “theft, fraud and corruption.”

Gray essentially boiled down to a financial shell game centered on five separate “schemes.” In one sense, it all starts with the civically famous Olivia Nutter ad which, per local lore, swung the 2007 mayoral primary in her father Michael’s direction.

When Fattah saw his sure-fire City Hall candidacy veer toward also-ran status, his campaign secured a $1 million loan from close friend Albert Lord that eviscerated any semblance of campaign-finance legality. 

An effort to repay portions of said loan then blossomed into that shell game involving loot from charitable donations and grant funds meant to fund educational, and other, programs.

“He even stole from his own campaign,” Gray said.

Add to that accusations that co-defendant/close friend Vederman helped cover tuition at Philadelphia University for a former Fattah au pair and a vacation home for the Fattahs in the Poconos.

Those activities, claim the government, were a quid pro quo for the congressman lobbying the Obama Administration for an ambassadorship.

Those activities, the government hoped to impart, bespoke a professional breach and corruption, and taxpayers being defrauded of their hard-earned dollars.

“He used Vederman as a personal ATM when he needed a little more money,” Gray argued during his hour-long opening. “Use common sense as you listen to the evidence.”

By the time Mark Lee – one of Fattah’s three attorneys – took the mic, the message had shifted. The congressman was not the bad guy here.

Concurring with his prosecutorial peers that the trial centers on “theft, fraud and corruption,” Lee said: "This is a case about two men who cut deals with the federal government to keep them out of federal prison."

He was talking about two former campaign staffers who’d already pleaded guilty in exchange for a shot at leniency from the prosecution: Tom Lindenfeld and Gregory Naylor. As in, Fattah had no idea what they were doing in securing those funds as their campaign work was insulated from the day-to-day activities.

“The government’s case rests on the words of those two convicted felons,” he said, noting that no solid audio or video recordings exist to make that case. “There’s nothing the government can say that will change that. … Congressman Fattah had nothing to do with what the government alleges he did.”

As for Vederman’s tuition-and-vacation-home involvement, Lee said his close relationship with Fattah essentially made this a case about “whether friends can actually bribe friends.”

“They would take long car rides just to be in each other’s company,” he said, noting that those charges “add up to examples of friends helping friends.”

Still following along? It’s tough, for sure. You have the government alleging a wide-ranging RICO case that saw a long-time civic leader playing fast and loose with finance laws to cover his butt. And you have the butt coverer's side retorting that it's all a big misunderstand, albeit one with no criminal intent. 

So, is this whole $1 million case about friends, frauds or friendly fraudulence?

That’s the question that 12 of those 18 jurors will have to answer at the end of what’s sure to be a confusing, weeks-long mash-up of details, memories and statements from witnesses who have a lot to lose.

It all left me quite happy knowing my only responsibility will be to watch it all unfold. That jury has my respect without a lick of jealousy.