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FBI quizzes Kelly & staff on top aide, 2 contributors

The councilman downplays probe

Federal authorities are investigating City Councilman Jack Kelly's office, the

Daily News

has learned.

The councilman at large - who squeaked back into office in November by 122 votes - has been questioned by FBI agents, as have members of his staff, sources said.

Kelly yesterday refused to discuss specifics, but downplayed the probe.

"I think it's much ado about nothing, probably," he said. "I don't know what's going to come out of it. It may not be anything."

FBI spokeswoman Jerri Williams and Michael Schwartz, head of the U.S. Attorney Office's Public Corruption Unit, both declined comment.

"It would be inappropriate for me to confirm or deny the existence of any investigation like that," Schwartz said.

Sources close to the probe said the feds have been asking questions about Kelly's chief of staff, Chris Wright, as well as the Council office's relationship with city real-estate developers Hardeep and Ravinder Chawla - longtime friends and supporters of Kelly.

Wright did not respond to a message left by the Daily News at his office.

Kelly said he had faith in his chief of staff.

"My relationship with him has been good," he said. "I'd be shocked if anything was out of the ordinary."

Hardeep Chawla yesterday said he didn't know that federal investigators had been asking about his relationship with Kelly's office.

"They haven't interviewed me," Chawla said. "Nobody approached me about this matter. I have no knowledge of it."

His brother, Ravinder, did not respond to Daily News messages left at his office and home yesterday.

Kelly declined to answer questions about the Chawla brothers.

His relationship with the two real-estate developers, who have large holdings in Northeast Philadelphia and a growing stock of Center City properties, came under scrutiny last year, when three of their partnerships gave a combined $30,000 to Kelly's re-election campaign.

Under the city's new campaign-finance laws, contributions are annually limited to $2,500 from an individual and $10,000 from a partnership or political action committee.

Andrew Teitelman, the Chawlas' lawyer, said the city Board of Ethics has requested information from the partnerships - Sant Properties, Philadelphia Chancellor LP and 11501 Roosevelt Partners LP. He said they were in the process of providing it.

"It's a back-and-forth," said Teitelman, who also served as Kelly's campaign treasurer. "I do owe them some information."

Shane Creamer, executive director of the Board of Ethics, declined to answer questions about the request.

"Any information about an investigation or a complaint must be kept in confidence," Creamer said, citing the city's ethics law.

Teitelman declined to comment yesterday when asked about the federal investigation.

"I'm not in a position to respond," he said.

Kelly has known Hardeep Chawla for about seven years and described him in 2006 to a federal judge as a "loyal friend."

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia charged Hardeep Chawla in 2005 with defrauding the government of $178,000 for a lease with the IRS for two buildings on Caroline Road, in the Northeast.

Hardeep Chawla pleaded guilty and was sentenced in 2006 to five months in federal prison to be followed by two years of supervised release.

Kelly was one of several friends and supporters who wrote to the federal judge before Chawla's sentencing to ask for leniency. Kelly wrote that Chawla had offered to distance himself from the councilman to avoid embarrassment. But Kelly said he was proud to consider Chawla a friend.

"When I announced my intention to run for City Council, he immediately volunteered his support, his time and the resources of his office during the trying time of my 2003 campaign," Kelly wrote to the judge.

Ravinder Chawla is president of World Acquisition Partners, which hopes to develop eight Center City acres along JFK Boulevard near the Schuylkill River into "Philadelphia River City."

The project, which could take 20 years to complete if approved, could one day line the river with 10 residential and office towers. *