A long prison term - perhaps as much as 20 years - likely awaits U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah after his conviction Tuesday on federal racketeering and bribery charges, say lawyers who specialize in criminal law.
The severity of the crimes for which he was convicted - Fattah stole money from both the government and nonprofits to pay off an illegal $1 million campaign loan, among other transgressions - will weigh heavily in U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle's III sentencing decision, set for October.
But public disillusionment with government and distrust of politicians, a hallmark of this year's election season, will also play a role, said Eric Breslin, a white-collar defense lawyer with Center City's Duane Morris firm.
"Corrupt politicians are never the flavor of the day, and especially now," Breslin said. "If I were his lawyer, I would tell my client to be prepared for some fairly bitter tidings."
The public mood may be a factor, Breslin said, because federal judges in corruption cases must consider the potential deterrent effect when imposing a sentence.
"I could see a sentencing judge wanting to make it clear . . . that this is a potentially career-ending course of conduct, should you choose to engage in it," Breslin said.
L. George Parry, a former federal and city prosecutor, said Bartle is fair, but has a reputation for being tough and will likely lean in the direction of a sentence of 15 years, perhaps more.
"The level of betrayal of the public trust here, and the fact that [Fattah] is a member of Congress and was on the House Appropriations Committee, arguably the most powerful committee in the House, I would expect that [Bartle] would take all of that into account and that would work against any form of leniency," Parry said.
Thomas A. Bergstrom, a former federal prosecutor who now works as a white-collar defense lawyer at the firm of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, said that because Fattah was convicted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, one of the toughest federal criminal statutes, he can expect a long sentence, perhaps as much as 20 years.
"I hope he doesn't get that," Bergstrom said. But, he added, "because of the racketeering conviction, I would be very concerned. It's just an ugly statute. Among all the federal crimes, it is one of the most serious. It is historically the vehicle they use to prosecute racketeers."
One wild card is the Supreme Court appeal of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's 2014 conviction on public corruption charges. A jury concluded that McDonnell and his wife broke the law when they accepted $177,000 in cash and gifts from an executive of a dietary supplement company who sought McDonnell's help in promoting his business. McDonnell acknowledged that he had set up meetings between the executive and various state officials, but said he never urged a particular outcome.
The Supreme Court, nearing the end of its term, is expected to issue a decision shortly. In the meantime, lawyers for former New York State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, convicted along with his son on public corruption charges, have won a postponement of the start of his sentence pending the outcome of McDonnell case.
Breslin, of Duane Morris, said a favorable outcome for McDonnell in the Supreme Court case might help Fattah. It could undermine the case for Fattah's bribery conviction and might be used by defense lawyers to attack the entire case, he said.