With less than three days to go before a federal bribery trial that threatens to send him and his wife to prison, Philadelphia City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson spent Friday appealing, not to a court, but to a higher power.
The 48-year-old Democrat and wife, Dawn Chavous, 42, attended what had been billed in fliers as a “Pre-trial Victory Prayer Service” hosted by Yesha Ministries, one of the largest churches in his South Philadelphia district.
As an electric church organ wailed, they strode side by side up the church’s center aisle, beaming and pausing for hugs and handshakes with a crowd of roughly 200 well-wishers.
Among them were several of Johnson’s Council colleagues including President Darrell L. Clarke, Isaiah Thomas, Jamie Gauthier, Cherelle Parker, Mark Squilla, and former Councilmember Jannie Blackwell.
A few potential witnesses for the prosecution put in an appearance, too. State Rep. Jordan Harris (D., Phila.) and State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Phila.), both in attendance, were listed in a government filing this week as two of more than 51 people they intend to call to the stand.
“I want to say I’m truly humbled by tireless support of all you standing with me, standing beside me,” Johnson said, addressing the crowd. “Some folks, they don’t want to be associated with someone who’s in the predicament I’m in. So I do not take it lightly, that I’m standing here with elected officials.”
Prosecutors have accused Johnson of accepting bribes worth more than $66,000 between 2013 and 2014 — in the form of a consulting contract for Chavous — from a financially strapped nonprofit seeking his help to maintain its real estate holdings.
In exchange for those payments, they say Johnson used the powers of his office to protect some of the charity’s properties from seizure and to pass zoning legislation that substantially increased the resale value of another.
But Johnson and Chavous have denied the allegations and expressed confidence Friday that with faith and facts on their side they will be vindicated once given the opportunity to tell their story to a jury.
“I continue to walk in faith and I continue to rest all my cares in Him,” Chavous said, addressing the crowd. “I know that we cannot do this on our own. We can’t fix this, this is beyond us.”
Amid audience chants of “God is good,” clapping and praising,the long list of clergy who spoke during the two-hour program likened Johnson to everything from the biblical prophet Job — whose lengthy list of tribulations and trials did not, as it happens, include one in federal court — to a goat, buried in a hole under dirt by people trying to trap it, and instead climbing out to rise above the obstacle.
“We are not waiting for victory,” said the Rev. David Gaines, of Kingdom Reign Worship. “The Bible says we come from victory, to victory, we originate in victory.”
Bishop James Darrell Robinson, who organized the service, explained he wanted to do something to show community support for the couple before they went to court. He cautioned the attendees against allowing media to “push the narrative on us.”
“The community is going be present,” he said. “They want to be present because our councilman has always been present — present at our funerals, present at our programs, present for our youths, present on the streets, present at City Hall standing up against violence… He’s always present.”
Despite the warm send-off they received Friday, Johnson and Chavous aren’t likely to receive as warm a welcome in court. With jury selection set to begin at the federal courthouse in Center City on Monday, prosecutors expressed confidence in court filings this week that they’ve built a case that will see the couple convicted.
If that happens, Johnson and Chavous face up to 20 years in prison on each of the two counts of honest services fraud they face. And Johnson would become — after Bobby Henon, who resigned in January — the second member of Council to lose his seat due to a corruption conviction in a year.
But as clergy embraced Johnson and Chavous in a final prayer Friday night in South Philly and the band played one last joyous song, the councilmember said he was ready.
“I continue to remain faithful,” he said. “To be quite frank with everyone, I think once this process started … we became even more blessed.”