PHILADELPHIA—Former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah was sentenced Monday to a 10-year prison term by a judge who said he was “astonished” that a veteran legislator would steal government and charity funds to pay his son’s debts and buy a vacation home.
Fattah, a Democrat who was born into a family of black activists in Philadelphia, spent two decades in Congress working on housing, education, gun control and other issues of concern to his mostly poor district. Fattah and his TV anchor wife meanwhile took in more than $500,000 a year.
Yet Fattah’s finances grew increasingly dire after a failed 2007 run for mayor, when he faced new campaign spending limits that led him to take an illegal $1 million loan from a friend. The trouble escalated when the friend called in the debt.
As he awaited his sentence, Fattah told the judge he had mixed emotions: saddened to find himself in court but grateful for the work he was able to do over 37 years as a state and federal lawmaker.
“I’ve helped tens of millions of people,” said Fattah, 60. “(That) has nothing to do with the fact that I’ve been found on the wrong side of these questions by a jury.”
Fattah lost the spring primary days before trial and resigned his seat following his June conviction. The jury found he took the $1 million loan from the chairman of Sallie Mae, the student loan corporation. He returned $400,000 of it and repaid some of the rest with federal grant money he had steered to an education non-profit run by former aides.
The non-profit efforts, including a NASA-funded mobile science classroom emblazoned with Fattah’s name that roamed Philadelphia during the mayoral campaign, helped promote Fattah’s political career, prosecutors said. Fattah was also ordered Monday to repay $600,000 to Sallie Mae and NASA.
“For someone so interested in advancing education for the disadvantaged, you had the temerity to steal from the Educational Advancement Alliance, a non-profit supported by government funds,” U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle said. “While you have done much good, you also engaged in grave and widespread criminal activity.”
Four co-defendants who helped Fattah move government grants and other money between his campaign, the nonprofits and his consultants will be sentenced throughout the week.
Fattah used the money on campaign and personal expenses, the jury found. He put $23,000 in non-profit funds toward his son’s college loans and took an $18,000 bribe to try to help a friend become an ambassador. Fattah and his wife used that money for a down payment on a Poconos vacation home. They told authorities it covered the friend’s purchase of a Porsche owned by Fattah’s wife, but the Porsche never left their garage.
Fattah had insisted the Department of Justice had been out to get him and his family for years. He plans to appeal the conviction.
“There are so many people in this courtroom and outside that owe their success—and also are able to serve the community so much better—as a result of the congressman’s influence, support and inspiration,” said Joseph Quinones, a one-time high school dropout who said that Fattah’s encouragement led him to earn a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
The congressman’s son is serving a five-year prison term in an overlapping fraud case that went to trial last year. Chaka “Chip” Fattah Jr. was convicted of using fraudulently obtained business loans to fund his jet-set lifestyle.
The elder Fattah, who earned $174,000 a year as a congressman, is married to longtime Philadelphia news anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah. They have two school-age children. Chenault-Fattah spent 25 years with WCAU-TV before she resigned after the indictment named her a participant in the bribery scheme. She was never charged and has denied wrongdoing.
Fattah’s co-defendants include former Philadelphia Deputy Mayor Herbert Vederman, of Palm Springs, Florida, who had sought the ambassadorship. He was sentenced to two years in prison Monday. Two political consultants pleaded guilty and testified at trial.
Prosecutors had asked for a 17- to 21-year sentence. The judge gave Fattah until Jan. 25 to report to prison.
Fattah entered Congress in 1995. Former state Rep. Dwight Evans, a fellow Democrat, now holds his seat.