Testifying before a grand jury in 2019, Eve Lewis — former vice president for marketing and development at the South Philadelphia nonprofit Universal Companies — offered a seemingly straightforward answer when asked by prosecutors whether she knew of any work the wife of City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson had done for the $67,000 Universal had paid her.
“I do not,” Lewis said at the time.
But if the government was expecting her testimony to play out along similar lines Tuesday as prosecutors called her as a witness in the couple’s federal bribery trial, Lewis quickly made clear things would not go nearly as smoothly.
Over more than two hours on the stand, the Universal executive snapped back at prosecutors, threw disapproving glances and insisted that after giving it more thought, Johnson’s spouse, Dawn Chavous, had been an asset to Universal between 2013 and 2014.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Dubnoff repeatedly accused Lewis of changing her story. Lewis would have none of it.
“I never provided false testimony,” she said, punctuating her words with exasperated handclaps.
That heated exchange came as prosecutors wound down their case against Johnson, a three-term Democratic councilmember, and Chavous, whom they’ve accused of accepting nearly $67,000 from Universal that they say was meant as a payoff to buy her husband’s support in various disputes over the nonprofit’s real estate holdings in his district.
The money, the government says, was disguised behind what they’ve called a sham consulting contract that Universal offered Chavous in exchange for very little work.
And Tuesday’s parade of witnesses seemed designed to tie up loose ends and fortify testimony jurors have heard over the last nine days. Prosecutors said they could wrap up their case as early as Wednesday, clearing the way for the defense case to begin.
But before that, the jury heard from a Universal charter schoolteacher, a neighbor of a Universal-owned property at 13th and Bainbridge Streets, an FBI forensic accountant, and an expert on state ethics law, who said Johnson had attended a refresher course on conflicts of interest on Oct. 23, 2014 — a day after his wife had cashed her final Universal check.
If Lewis’ stint on the stand was intended to provide similar last-minute spackling to the government’s case, it didn’t work out that way.
“Can you please get to the point of what you’re asking me?” she snapped in frustration at Dubnoff, interrupting him as he challenged her on her shifting narratives. “My testimony isn’t different. It’s expounded upon.”
For her part, Lewis — who as Universal’s chief marketer was involved in many of the same projects for the nonprofit that Chavous has maintained she worked on in exchange for her paychecks — said she misunderstood when she told the grand jury two years earlier that she couldn’t say what the councilmember had done.
“When you said ‘work,’ I didn’t really understand what you meant,” she said to Dubnoff. Chavous, she clarified Tuesday, “was at meetings. She did not answer directly to me. So in terms of that question, I can’t say what her specific responsibility was.”
But it wasn’t just in that earlier testimony that Lewis, who was with Universal for 15 years, had downplayed Chavous’ contributions. She made similar statements in interviews with FBI agents in January 2018 and August 2019, and said she could only recall Chavous participating in two Universal meetings and couldn’t remember her saying anything in either.
Confronted with those prior statements Tuesday, Lewis said her memory was hazy and she hadn’t reviewed documents in advance that would have refreshed her recollection.
As Dubnoff pressed her on why she hadn’t bothered to do so despite repeated contacts with federal law enforcement between 2018 and 2019, Lewis simply shrugged.
“I’m a very busy person,” she said.
Sensing an opportunity, lawyers for Johnson, Chavous, and the two Universal executives accused of bribing the couple — former CEO Rahim Islam and ex-CFO Shahied Dawan — quickly moved to use Lewis to bolster their case.
Chavous’ attorney, Barry Gross, presented her with emails and records he’s shown to jurors throughout the trial as evidence of work his client completed as part of her contract, including connecting the nonprofit with a 5K event in Point Breeze, and suggesting someone from Universal should sit on the board of a neighborhood community organization.
According to Gross, her list of responsibilities also included building relationships on the nonprofit’s behalf with influential people, planning events and tours, and assisting with spreading the nonprofit’s message.
“After looking at these documents, do you now recall that Ms. Chavous did work for Universal?” he asked Lewis on Tuesday.
She responded with an assured “Yes.”
And though Lewis acknowledged that she’d had a previous romantic ”encounter” with Islam, his lawyer, David Laigaie, used his opportunity to question her to nudge her into extolling his client’s virtues as a committed and driven nonprofit leader.
That prompted an exasperated challenge from Dubnoff later. Are you still involved with Mr. Islam? he asked.
Lewis said no. She maintained as her time on the stand concluded that her relationships with Islam or anyone else hadn’t influenced what she told the jury Tuesday. If she’d shifted her story, she insisted, it wasn’t because anyone had pressured her to.
“I believed in Universal,” she said. “I believe in its mission and the vision, not my relationship with any one individual.”
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