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Philadelphia City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson said he and his wife, political consultant Dawn Chavous, expect federal prosecutors to announce charges against them as soon as Wednesday, but he vowed the couple will ultimately clear their names.
In an interview Tuesday with The Inquirer, Johnson and his lawyer, Patrick Egan, said they believe the grand jury indictment will focus on the relationships among the councilman’s City Hall office, Chavous’ consulting firm, and Universal Companies, a South Philadelphia community development nonprofit and charter-school operator founded by the music producer Kenny Gamble.
Based on conversations they have had with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, they anticipate that prosecutors will attempt to prove that Universal gave Chavous a consulting job in exchange for the councilmember’s assistance in clearing the way for the nonprofit’s proposed redevelopment of the Royal Theater on South Street in 2014.
Egan called that theory “ridiculous” and “inaccurate."
Johnson, a three-term Democrat whose district covers South and Southwest Philadelphia, added: “I wouldn’t make a foolish decision to do any type of backroom deals or engage in any kind of illegal activity. It just doesn’t make sense for me to get this far in life and engage in that type of behavior.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has scheduled a 10:30 a.m. news conference Wednesday to announce “a major criminal indictment” in a public corruption case. A spokesperson declined to comment but sources familiar with the investigation confirmed that the announcement pertains to the Johnson case.
Charges against Johnson, 47, would make him the second member of Council currently fighting federal indictment — a state of affairs not seen in Philadelphia since the Abscam scandal of the 1980s. That swept up three members of Council along with six congressmen and the mayor of Camden in a bribery probe involving an undercover FBI agent posing as an Arab sheikh.
The case against Johnson and Chavous, 40, comes a year after federal prosecutors charged Councilmember Bobby Henon in a political bribery case involving labor leader John J. “Johnny Doc” Dougherty.
Johnson and his attorney said they decided to make the unusual choice of speaking out before charges have been filed so they could preempt the allegations after years of staying largely silent about the prolonged investigation. Johnson said he won’t step down while he waits for his day in court.
“I’m not going to be ducking this issue at all,” he said. “We’re going to fight because I’m innocent and my wife is innocent.”
Johnson said he and Chavous have turned over thousands of documents to investigators, including some requested by a federal subpoena last spring that was delivered to Johnson’s office on the morning of Council’s weekly meeting.
“This has felt like consistent harassment,” Johnson said. “I’ve been very forthright and forthcoming with the information I’ve been asked to provide.”
More than a dozen sources familiar with the FBI’s inquiry have described it as a five-year-long probe that has examined everything from Johnson’s involvement in bargain-rate sales of city-owned land to Chavous’ work as an education consultant, campaign adviser, and advocate for charter schools.
The FBI has taken particular interest in areas where Chavous’ business endeavors and her husband’s work at City Hall overlap, said the sources. Many of them testified behind closed doors before the grand jury and agreed to describe their testimony only on the condition of anonymity.
Egan said that based on conversations he has had with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he does not expect the land sales or Chavous’ other work to feature in any indictment. Its focus, he said, appears to be rezoning legislation Johnson put forward to help Universal’s ambitions in 2014, while the nonprofit was paying Chavous.
But the defense lawyer likened the sprawling probe to a witch hunt, saying: “It’s essentially been an investigation in search of a crime. You know, bouncing from theory to theory.”
Johnson and Egan declined to answer questions Tuesday about the terms and dates of Chavous’ employment with Universal or what she did for Gamble’s operations, except to say her work was focused on the nonprofit’s charter school operations.
Chavous has run her own education consulting firm since 2011 while also serving as board chair of Sky Community Partners, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that provides scholarship money to independent schools under the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program.
In a statement Tuesday, she said her work experience made her eminently qualified for the job, that her hiring had nothing to do with Universal’s business with her husband’s office, and that to suggest otherwise was demeaning.
“To have implied that I received any financial benefit as a result of my marriage and not my own work ethic is simply untrue,” she said. “It impugns my reputation, and worse, it relies on the old trope that women only owe their successes to the men in their lives.”
Before the passage of Johnson’s 2014 ordinance for the Royal — once a crown jewel of South Street that through years of neglect had become a blighted eyesore in the heart of his 2nd Council District — Universal had struggled to redevelop the site as an entertainment venue for 14 years.
The structure was on the verge of collapse when the nonprofit purchased the 1,200-seat theater at 15th Street and South for $250,000 in 2000. And despite receiving nearly a half-million dollars from city, state, and federal coffers between 2000 and 2011 for its rehab efforts, Universal made little progress.
Then, in 2014, the nonprofit abruptly changed course, abandoned its earlier plans and began seeking approvals to turn the Royal into a mixed-use development featuring 45 apartments over 7,600 square feet of retail space.
In October of that year, Johnson introduced a bill that would change the density allowable under the site’s zoning restrictions. The measure passed six weeks later, allowing Universal to move forward with the most promising proposal it had put forth to date.
But the nonprofit’s efforts never got off the ground, despite the councilmember’s support. Universal sold the Royal to developer Robert Roskamp in 2015 for $3.7 million — nearly 15 times what it originally paid for the site.
FBI agents raided Universal’s offices and the home of its chief executive, Rahim Islam, in 2017. And last year, the former president of the Milwaukee school board pleaded guilty to accepting nearly $6,000 in bribes from Islam and Universal’s ex-chief financial officer, Shaheid Dawan, for his support of measures beneficial to two charter campuses it operated in that school district.
Neither Islam nor Dawan has been charged with a crime. Both, through their lawyers, have denied wrongdoing.
An attorney for Universal did not return calls for comment Tuesday.
Johnson addressed his constituents directly in a statement issued after The Inquirer interview.
“I will keep fighting for you regardless of what happens with this federal case,” it read. “I will not let it stop me from keeping up the fight for our community and advancing our shared agenda.”
The city has paid roughly $189,000 for Johnson’s legal representation to date, but will suspend those payments in line with city policy should he be charged, the city Law Department said.