Philadelphia City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson on Friday pleaded not guilty to federal corruption charges, just four weeks after being sworn in to a third four-year term.
Johnson, 46, was accompanied in the courtroom by his wife and co-defendant, Dawn Chavous, 40, who also pleaded not guilty before Magistrate Judge Richard Lloret.
Johnson, a Democrat who represents parts of South and Southwest Philadelphia, and Chavous, a political consultant, were charged Wednesday with two counts each of honest services wire fraud, a form of bribery. The charges against them were spelled out in a 22-count indictment that mostly focused on a wide-ranging racketeering conspiracy that prosecutors say was committed by co-defendants Shahied Dawan and Abdur Rahim Islam.
Prosecutors say Johnson and Chavous accepted more than $66,750 in bribes from Dawan and Islam, two executives at Universal Companies, the nonprofit community development and charter school management organization founded by music mogul Kenny Gamble. In exchange, investigators say, Johnson intervened on the nonprofit’s behalf, protecting some of its properties from seizure and passing legislation that substantially increased the value of one.
The couple, who have vowed to fight the charges and clear their names, could each face up to 40 years in prison and fines of $500,000 if convicted, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. They were each released on $15,000 unsecured bond.
Islam, 62, also pleaded not guilty Friday. He is charged with bribing the couple and others in a scheme that prosecutors say included fraud, wire fraud, tax offenses, and the theft of almost $500,000 from Universal, his former employer. He was released on $100,000 bond secured by a house he owns.
Dawan, 68, Universal’s former chief financial officer, pleaded not guilty Thursday. He, like Islam, the nonprofit’s ex-CEO, is charged with bribing the couple and looting Universal’s coffers to cover personal expenses, among other crimes.
If convicted, Islam and Dawan could face lengthy prison terms and hefty fines, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
After Friday’s court hearing, Johnson and Chavous were fingerprinted and processed, then left the building hand-in-hand.
“I am innocent," Johnson said. "I have pleaded not guilty and I look forward to my day in court to exonerate my name.”
Chavous said: “You heard what I said in court. I am innocent. No comment after that.”
Johnson’s attorney, Patrick J. Egan, criticized federal authorities for including the councilmember and his wife in an indictment mostly aimed at the misdeeds of others, giving the public the impression that the couple had been charged with more crimes — and more serious ones — than they actually have been. “All they’ve done really here, is muddy up what they may or may not have [in] a case against other individuals by dragging my client into it when he did nothing wrong,” he said.
Prosecutors say Islam and Dawan “hijacked” Universal and engaged in a pattern of criminal activity that spanned two states and several years. In addition to bribing Johnson and his wife to help Universal, the two former executives also bribed the president of the board of education in Milwaukee, where the nonprofit managed two charter schools, officials said.
The bribes to Chavous, in 2013 and 2014, were disguised as consulting fees, officials said.
Chavous’ attorney, Barry Gross, said the allegations against her are false. “We turned over 40,000 documents," he said. "We directed them to witnesses, all showing the work that Ms. Chavous did.”
“I don’t know why they are going after the councilman, and I really don’t know why they are going after his wife," he added. "It really looks like overreaching to me to go after his wife.”
Christian D. Zajac, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Philadelphia Division, described things differently. “What we have here is four people pretending their motives were purely civic-minded, when, in fact, they were unlawfully conspiring to enrich themselves,” he said.
In court Friday, Johnson did little talking as the judge described the conditions of his release.
Chavous, when told she could not have a gun while awaiting trial and asked whether there were guns in her home, leaned into the microphone from her seat at the defense table and replied: “We’re a Peace Not Guns household,” a reference to the antiviolence nonprofit her husband founded.
When the judge said she could travel only in the lower 48 states, which excludes Hawaii, Chavous said, “We’re not going anywhere.”
And when the judge cautioned that she could not commit any crimes while awaiting trial, Chavous said, “I haven’t committed any crimes. I’m not going to commit any crimes.”