The battle to define Philadelphia City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson and his wife, Dawn Chavous, for the federal jury that will decide their fate began Thursday with dueling portraits of the couple and lawyers on both sides vowing the evidence would ultimately vindicate their views.
Prosecutors painted Chavous and Johnson — a three-term member of Council — as a South Philadelphia “power couple” who lived beyond their means and greedily lined their pockets with bribe money from a struggling nonprofit while ignoring constituent concerns.
But the duo’s attorneys, in their opening pitch, balked at the government’s contention that $67,000 the organization paid Chavous through consulting contracts between 2013 and 2016 was meant as a payoff to her husband.
Johnson hardly needed to be bribed, his attorney Patrick Egan maintained, to support Universal Companies, an organization founded to expand affordable housing and revitalize the neighborhood that he grew up in. In fact, said Egan, both goals had been the foundation of Johnson’s 14-year political career.
“I don’t know anybody who bribes someone when they don’t have to,” Egan said. “Clearly, they didn’t need to pay him to get him to support him. They had the same missions.”
That back-and-forth on the first day of testimony in Johnson and Chavous’ federal bribery trial set the tone for the high-stakes proceedings set to play out over the next three weeks.
Should Johnson be convicted, he would be the second member of Council, after Bobby Henon, to lose his seat and face significant prison time due to a corruption conviction within a year.
Johnson, 48, and Chavous, 42, said nothing, on advice from their attorneys, as they arrived in the courtroom packed with supporters from their church and community.
Both sat quietly, showing no emotion, as Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Gibson pointed at them during his opening statement and accused the couple of using Johnson’s post for their own financial gain.
“Kenyatta Johnson and Dawn Chavous were willing to sell Johnson’s elected office,” he said. “They did so, providing official acts, legislation, votes and intervention in exchange for a series of payments totaling nearly $67,000. In lawyer speak, [that’s] quid pro quo corruption.”
Prosecutors maintain that Johnson twice took action to protect the endangered real estate holdings of Universal Companies — a South Philadelphia community development nonprofit and charter school operator founded by music icon Kenny Gamble.
In 2014, Johnson passed zoning legislation through Council that substantially increased the resale value of one property Universal owned, the storied Royal Theater on South Street. That same year, he used his authority to block the city from seizing another parcel of the nonprofit’s land at 13th and Bainbridge Streets.
In exchange, prosecutors say, two Universal executives — former CEO Rahim Islam and ex-CFO Shahied Dawan — paid the councilmember through what Gibson described Thursday as a bogus contract with Chavous.
“No one seemed to know what she was doing for Universal,” he said. “The only real value that Ms. Chavous provided to Mr. Islam and Mr. Dawan was that she was married to Mr. Johnson.”
Chavous’ lawyer, Barry Gross, shot back, questioning the government’s characterization of Chavous’ role at Universal as a “low-show job.” He described her as a “workaholic,” former chief of staff to a state senator and a noted expert in the field of charter schools.
She spent hours earning every cent that Universal paid her, he said, by planning events, organizing meetings, escorting officials on tours of the nonprofit’s charter school campus and keeping executives apprised of legislation in Harrisburg.
“Was Ms. Chavous really acting like a woman who really thought her consulting contract was bogus?” he asked. “There was nothing bogus about the 16 months that she and her company did on behalf of Universal.”
But while the spotlight shone on the councilmember and his wife, much of the day’s testimony centered on Universal and its two former executives, who also are charged in the case.
In addition to the bribery counts, Islam, 64, and Dawan, 70, face separate charges that they embezzled more than $600,000 from the nonprofit between 2011 and 2017 and engaged in another bribery scheme while attempting to salvage a failing attempt to expand Universal’s charter school operations to Milwaukee.
Prosecutors say that the six-figure losses brought on by that venture’s collapse and the duo’s thievery left Universal on the brink of a financial calamity and made Johnson’s support for its Philadelphia land deals so crucial for it to survive.
Yet Islam’s attorney, David Laigaie, and Dawan’s attorney, Thomas O. Fitzpatrick, insisted that Universal’s financial outlook was never so dire as the government led jurors to believe. In the years in question, it had an operating budget of more than $60 million, Fitzpatrick said.
“A six-figure loss in a $60 million [venture] is a drop in the bucket,” he said, “And it’s certainly not the type of money that you go out and bribe a sitting city councilman to prevent yourself from losing.”
Both Islam and Dawan were founding members of the organization when Gamble — one-half of the famed songwriting duo Gamble and Huff and originators of the ‘70s soul style known as the “Philadelphia Sound” — created the organization in the ‘90s with his wife, Faatimah.
Prosecutors have not accused him of involvement in the bribery scheme and instead have portrayed him as a victim whose reputation was sullied by Islam and Dawan’s alleged crimes.
It was Tamelia Hinton-Threadgill — Gamble’s stepdaughter, Universal’s COO, and the first government witness Thursday — who provided jurors with an overview of the nonprofit and its mission.
“Mr. Gamble had a vision that he wanted to return to the community in which he grew up,” said Hinton-Threadgilll. “Over the years, it had become devastated by drug dealers pouring in, drug addicts, prostitution, blighted houses, crack houses. … He just wanted to go back to his community and rebuild.”
She said she’d never heard of Chavous and wasn’t aware that she’d ever done any work for Universal, despite the nonprofit’s contracts with Johnson’s wife. Defense lawyers will get their chance to cross-examine Hinton-Threadgill as the trial resumes Friday.
Gamble was not in the courtroom as his stepdaughter testified, though the government has said it could call him as a witness.
Still, prosecutors couldn’t resist injecting a bit of his celebrity star power into the proceedings.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Dubnoff repeatedly played clips of some of Gamble’s bigger hits — “Love Train,” “You Got What I Need,” “When Will I See You Again” — asking Hinton-Threadgill if she could identify her stepdad’s famous tunes.
He closed out his questioning Thursday — a line of inquiry about Chavous — with another Gamble and Huff needle drop. As the O’Jays’ 1973 hit “For the Love of Money” blared over the courtroom speakers, Dubnoff pointedly noted the lyrics.
“For the love of money,” the song goes, “people will rob their own brother.”
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