There was one point upon which lawyers on opposite sides of Kenyatta Johnson’s federal bribery trial agreed in their final pitches to jurors Tuesday: There is no smoking gun to prove the Philadelphia City Council member accepted nearly $67,000 in bribes disguised through a consulting contract with his wife.
But when it came to what the remaining evidence did show, the attorneys could not have disagreed more.
As Assistant U.S. Attorneys Eric Gibson and Mark Dubnoff told it, the government put on a case that, while circumstantial, left no room for doubt that Johnson had sold the powers of his office to two nonprofit executives who effectively put him on retainer.
“It’s the same way you know it’s raining,” Dubnoff said. “When someone comes inside with a raincoat and umbrella and they’re both dripping wet.”
Johnson’s lawyer, Patrick Egan dismissed prosecutors’ theory of the case as a collection of “cherry-picked” facts strung together to create an incriminating-looking but ultimately baseless fiction.
“That was a heck of a story you heard from Mr. Dubnoff,” he said when it was his turn to address the jury. “The problem is there’s no evidence to support that story. None. Not a single shred.”
That back-and-forth came as jurors prepared to begin deliberations in a case that could end with the second corruption conviction of a member of Philadelphia City Council in less than a year.
And throughout it all, Johnson and his wife, Dawn Chavous, kept their expressions nearly inscrutable as the full day of closing arguments played out in a courtroom packed with their supporters — though occasionally the councilmember shook his head and appeared to chuckle as prosecutors spoke.
U.S. District Judge Gerald A. McHugh is expected to deliver instructions to the jury on the law Wednesday morning before handing the case over to the nine men and three women set to decide the couple’s fate.
But unlike the case against Johnson’s former Council colleague Bobby Henon, who resigned in January after his conviction in a bribery case involving labor leader John Dougherty, the Johnson case poses a more complex conundrum question for the jury.
In this case, there are no wiretaps in which Johnson, Chavous, or their two codefendants — Rahim Islam and Shahied Dawan, the executives accused of bribing them at the South Philadelphia nonprofit and charter school operator Universal Companies — discussed what they sought from one another.
No witness who testified could say for certain that the foursome had struck a corrupt bargain.
Instead, prosecutors over more than three weeks of trial have constructed their case largely around business records, invoices, bank statements, and emails from a roughly 16-month period between 2013 and 2014 and interpreted for the jury by the case’s lead investigator, FBI Special Agent Richard Haag.
They contended Tuesday that the evidence — though circumstantial — was more than enough to secure a verdict of guilty. Dubnoff spent most of his closing argument connecting the dots of a timeline that had been presented in isolated moments throughout the trial.
In June 2012, he noted, Chavous — a noted charter school advocate and politically connected consultant — had reached out to Universal Companies offering her services, but at the time Dawan told Islam they had no use for her because the organization already had people who could do the fund-raising and marketing services she was offering.
But nearly a year later, Universal found itself in financial dire straits. Banks were questioning its 24-month string of losses, it was forced to let go of almost all the other consultants on its payroll, and on April 11, 2013, Dawan sent Islam an urgent warning, writing, “We are out of cash!!”
The nonprofit was sitting on two potentially lucrative properties — the historic Royal Theater on South Street and a parcel of vacant lots near 13th and Bainbridge Streets — that could help it out of its financial bind.
But, Dubnoff argued, previous failed efforts to develop both had shown Islam that if new development plans were to get off the ground, they would need their councilmember’s help.
Days after that email from Dawan, Islam met with Johnson. He set up a meeting with Chavous the very next day.
And while defense lawyers were quick to point out that the government couldn’t say for certain what was discussed in either meeting, Universal offered Chavous her consulting contract less than a month later.
“If Mr. Islam truly felt the need to hire Ms. Chavous on her own merit,” Dubnoff asked, “why did he have to meet with Councilman Johnson first? Why not go directly to Ms. Chavous?”
Initially, that contract stipulated she would be paid a flat $3,500 fee a month — a figure she raised by a thousand dollars one day after a fund-raiser for her husband in which Islam approached the councilmember seeking his help with a zoning change needed for Universal’s plans to redevelop the Royal Theater.
Johnson would eventually push the requested zoning bill through Council and again weigh in against city efforts to seize Universal’s lots at 13th and Bainbridge Streets after the nonprofit failed to live up to the terms of a sales agreement requiring it to develop the property.
“You all know a deal was struck,” Dubnoff told jurors. “Mr. Islam agreed to hire Councilman Johnson’s wife. And Councilman Johnson agreed to use his office to help Universal.”
But lawyers for the four defendants shot back, each highlighting in turn where prosecutors were forced to make assumptions due to gaps in their evidentiary record and posing questions aimed at exposing the holes they saw in the government’s case.
If Johnson and Chavous were lining their pockets with Universal bribe money, Egan asked, where was the evidence of how they spent it?
“Do we have fancy jewelry, bags of money, pricey vacations?” he asked. “No. We have a guy with student loans, a used car — a Chevy Equinox — and a $300,000 mortgage on a house in South Philadelphia.”
If Johnson’s support for the Royal Theater rezoning bill truly had been bought, Islam lawyer David Laigaie posited, why had the councilmember conditioned his backing on the nonprofit working with neighbors opposed to the proposal to make changes to the design that cost thousands of dollars in extra work?
“If we had bribed [Johnson] to propose this ordinance, we would not have been jumping through all these hoops,” he said.
Prosecutors had spent much of the trial characterizing Chavous’ contract with Universal as a sham meant to funnel money to her husband and alleged she did less than 40 hours of work for the $66,750 she was paid — an assessment that would put her hourly rate at more than $1,660 an hour.
“Who pays that kind of money?” Dubnoff asked at one point. “Criminals. That’s who.”
But if the contract were truly a cover, her lawyer Barry Gross asked, then why had Chavous bothered to do any work at all? He highlighted throughout the trial introductions she’d made for Universal to a network of wealthy charter school backers, tours she’d set up and meetings she’d attended on Universal’s behalf.
“She is not someone who is acting like her contract is bogus,” he told jurors Tuesday, adding: “This case is not about whether two prosecutors and Agent Haag think this woman’s work has value.”
In the end, the prosecutors and the defense urged jurors to just use their common sense.
Starting Wednesday, it will be up to the panel to decide whether common sense leads to a conviction.
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