Two of Kenyatta Johnson’s staffers told a federal jury Monday they had no idea that the Philadelphia city councilmember’s wife had a consulting contract with a South Philadelphia nonprofit that sought his help with real estate troubles in his district.
Christopher Sample, Johnson’s chief of staff, and Steve Cobb, his former legislative director, testified that they first learned that Dawn Chavous had been paid nearly $67,000 by Universal Companies when they were contacted by federal authorities asking about the business relationship years later.
Cobb said he wished he’d known about that when Johnson’s Council office was working on matters related to Universal’s property holdings three years earlier.
“I think it might be something you’d want to get an ethics opinion about,” he said. “I was a little surprised.”
That testimony came as prosecutors opened the third — and what they said could be the final — week of their federal bribery case against Johnson, Chavous, and two former Universal executives accused of bribing the couple through a consulting contract with Chavous that the government says was a sham.
But while Cobb acknowledged that Chavous’ ties to Universal posed a potential conflict of interest for Johnson that he hadn’t disclosed to his staff, on his financial disclosure forms or to the city’s Board of Ethics, neither man said any action he took on the nonprofit’s behalf struck them as unusual at the time.
Cobb became involved in Universal’s plans to redevelop the historic Royal Theater on South Street in 2013, when the nonprofit and developer Carl Dranoff unveiled a proposal to refashion the property as an apartment building with retail on the ground floor.
The project required new zoning. And while several community organizations supported the plan, a vocal group of neighbors who lived immediately across from the Royal opposed it.
Cobb told jurors he met with those neighbors on several occasions and conveyed their complaints to his boss, who sought various concessions from Universal and Johnson to address the residents’ concerns.
Still, Johnson ultimately backed the project and pushed a bill through Council in 2014 to get it the zoning it required.
Questioning Cobb on Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Gibson sought to convey that despite the legislative director’s involvement in the Royal Theater debate, Johnson had left him out of several key meetings the councilmember had with the two Universal executives charged with bribing him — former CEO Rahim Islam and ex-CFO Shahied Dawan.
But Cobb said he wasn’t sure if the reason he had no recollection of those meetings was because his memory had faded over eight years or because he was never invited in the first place.
Prosecutors have suggested that Johnson’s silence about those meetings stemmed from the fact that he recognized Universal’s contract with his wife was intended as a payoff and his help with the Royal Theater was what it wanted in exchange. Islam offered Chavous the job assisting with Universal’s charter school operations the day after an April 17, 2013, discussion with Johnson about the Royal’s zoning ordinance.
In 2014, when the city’s Redevelopment Authority sought to reclaim a different parcel of properties it had sold to Universal at 13th and Bainbridge Streets due to the nonprofit’s failure to live up to the terms of sale agreement, Chavous sent Islam a warning.
The authority’s then-head, Brian Abernathy, who also testified Monday, went to Johnson to seek his backing for the effort and told jurors he was disappointed by the councilmember’s response.
“He wouldn’t support it,” Abernathy said, effectively killing the effort to reclaim the land.
But lawyers for Johnson and Chavous have balked at the idea that Johnson’s decisions involving the Royal Theater or the 13th and Bainbridge Street properties in 2014 had anything to do with Chavous’ simultaneous work for the nonprofit.
A politically connected consultant and long-standing charter schools advocate, Chavous brought value to Universal’s efforts to raise awareness around and money for the seven campuses Universal operated in the city, they’ve said.
And while prosecutors have dismissed the contract as a “low show” job, her attorney, Barry Gross, has sought to dispel that notion by showing examples of emails she sent, meetings and tours she set up, and other events she planned on the nonprofit’s behalf.
“You worked very hard for Chavous Consulting?” Gross asked Chavous’ lone employee, Portia Fullard, as she testified earlier Monday. “And so did Ms. Chavous?”
Fullard testified that she’d sat in on a spring 2013 meeting between Chavous and Islam in which they ironed out the details of what the nonprofit expected as part of the contract it was offering her.
“When Universal was discussing the services they needed from you and Ms. Chavous, you weren’t discussing a fake contract, were you?” Gross asked.
No, Fullard responded, if it was a fake contract, there would have been no need for a meeting to discuss responsibilities it involved.
Fullard testified Monday under a grant of immunity from prosecution. She had threatened to exercise her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination when she was called before a grand jury earlier in the investigation. She told jurors Thursday that when FBI agents first showed up at her door to ask her about Chavous’ work, she initially lied about her identity and claimed to be her sister — a possible federal crime.
Also testifying under an immunity deal Monday was Karren Dunkley, another consultant who worked for Universal during the same period it contracted with Chavous. (She said she’d initially lied to investigators about political donations she’d made at Islam’s request, which he’d later reimbursed her for.)
Her duties for the nonprofit primarily centered on grant writing — one of the responsibilities Chavous’ lawyer has said the councilmember’s wife performed as part of her contract.
Dunkley said she spent 75 to 80 hours a week writing and refining two major grant proposals for Universal’s schools in 2014 and she couldn’t recall Chavous contributing to any of them.
The defense, however, pushed back, noting that Dunkley’s education and grant-writing background brought only half of what was necessary. Chavous, they said, had the contacts in the political world necessary to get those grant proposals approved. Many required support from area lawmakers.
Still, Assistant U.S. Attorney asked Dunkley to estimate how much Universal had paid her.
Roughly $15,000, she replied, for what she estimated was 400 hours of work.
The government has estimated that for the $67,000 the nonprofit paid Chavous, she worked fewer than 40.
Keep up with every development in Kenyatta Johnson’s trial with our day-by-day recaps, live daily coverage, and explainer on everything you need to know about the case.