Nearly three years after he began serving one of the longest prison terms ever for a member of Congress, former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah returned to federal court in Philadelphia on Friday to push for a lighter sentence now that some of his convictions were overturned on appeal.
He left disappointed.
Citing his still-standing convictions on 13 other counts, U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III ordered the West Philadelphia Democrat to serve the full 10-year sentence he got in 2016.
Fattah arrived in court Friday in an olive prison jumpsuit with slightly grayer, slightly less hair than the last time he was there.
“I’ve spent some time thinking about my life and the decisions I’ve made and the impact that they’ve had,” he told the judge, describing his time at the federal prison in McKean County. “I have taken some responsibility for making some very bad choices. I’m deeply sorry for them.”
Why was Fattah resentenced?
An appeals court last year overturned Fattah’s conviction on four counts of bribery and money laundering.
In their ruling, the judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit described the evidence that Fattah had accepted bribes as “overwhelming.” But the panel said the instructions Bartle gave the jury — including on the legal definition of “political graft” — did not comply with new standards the U.S. Supreme Court set just days after the verdict in the congressman’s case.
Still, D. Brooks Smith, chief judge for the appeals court, wrote: "There is more than sufficient evidence to support Fattah’s conviction on all of the other counts,” including allegations that he stole federal grant funds, charitable donations, and campaign cash to pay his personal and political debts.
Prosecutors had alleged that Fattah had accepted gifts from wealthy benefactor Herbert Vederman, including cash payments to the congressman’s children, college tuition for his South African au pair, and $18,000 to help buy a Poconos vacation home.
In exchange, Fattah gave Vederman’s girlfriend a job in his district office and lobbied government officials — including then-President Barack Obama and Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) — in a failed attempt to land Vederman a job as a foreign ambassador.
While overturning some convictions, the Third Circuit judges reinstated the jury’s guilty verdict on two charges that Bartle himself had previously tossed — both tied to the congressman’s efforts to hide an alleged $18,000 bribe by forging documents and disguising it as proceeds from the fake sale of a Porsche convertible belonging to his wife, former NBC10 anchor Renee Chenault Fattah.
Fattah was sentenced anew on those counts Friday and received 10-year sentences for both.
What did the lawyers say?
The defense argued that Fattah’s overall sentence should be reduced. Without the bribery allegations that were overturned, the range of punishments called for under sentencing guidelines was roughly 3 ½ years less than it had been in 2016.
Bartle, however, was quick to note that the 10-year sentence Fattah received was 19 months less than even those new, lowered guidelines.
How did Fattah react?
When it came time for him to address the judge, Fattah was much more apologetic than he had been during his 2016 sentencing.
Back then, he expressed regret for how his conviction had affected his constituents, but stopped short of fully acknowledging guilt.
This time, he said, he had tried to become a mentor to other inmates and had thought about his own mistakes. “I’ve done things that are wrong, and want the court to know that I understand that I’ve let people down and that I’ve hurt people,” he told the judge.
On his way out, he flashed a smile to the few family members and supporters in the courtroom.
What has life in prison been like?
Fattah has spent the first 2 ½ years of his sentence at the same minimum-security correctional facility where his son, Chaka “Chip” Fattah Jr., is serving an unrelated five-year prison term for bank and tax fraud.
His lawyers said the ex-congressman has completed 23 courses and teaches other inmates. He hopes to start a neuroscience firm when he gets out, they said. His projected release date is in October 2025.
Wait, who is Chaka Fattah anyway?
Fattah was first elected in 1994 to represent a district that encompassed parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery County. In his 21 years in Congress, he held several high-level positions, including a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
He lost a primary reelection bid to his successor, then-State Rep. Dwight Evans, just before the start of his trial and resigned his seat under pressure from House colleagues shortly after his 2016 conviction.