Is U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah's frequent and forceful criticism of the federal Justice Department's case against him an effort to defend his reputation ahead of what could be a competitive reelection campaign next year, or, as prosecutors see it, a subtle and improper attempt to taint the jury pool?
A federal judge was asked to weigh in Monday, as prosecutors sought to bar Fattah and his legal team from ignoring the evidence and building their defense strategy around the congressman's record in Washington and allegations of impropriety in the U.S. Attorney's Office.
U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III is expected to rule on the government request in the coming days. But during a federal court hearing, he appeared skeptical.
"We don't, as a court, generally rule on hypotheticals," Bartle told Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric L. Gibson, adding later: "It's not unusual for a person that's indicted to make a statement that he's innocent."
Fattah is accused of accepting bribes and repeatedly raiding federal grant funds, his own campaign coffers, and charities he founded to pay personal debts and enrich his family and inner circle.
Since his indictment on racketeering conspiracy charges in July, he has largely left his courtroom defense up to his lawyers. He did not attend Monday's hearing, opting to make an appearance at an event at Roxborough High School for the start of National GEAR UP Week, a celebration of a Department of Education college-readiness grant program created by a bill Fattah shepherded through Congress in 1998.
But outside the courtroom, the Philadelphia Democrat has plotted his own course, crafting a public defense that has taken a two-pronged approach - stressing his congressional accomplishments, while questioning the tactics and motives of the prosecutors and the FBI.
He has accused the government of relentlessly pursuing him and his family for eight years - even as prosecutors maintain that the congressman became a target only within the last two.
"I understand their desire to come after me," Fattah said of investigators after his last court appearance in August, "but to take innocent people - to take people in my family - and smear their good name, that says a lot about the character."
Statements like that, prosecutors argued Monday, represent an effort by Fattah and his team to seize control of the trial narrative before a single piece of government evidence has been presented. What's more, the remarks could signal that defense lawyers hope to turn the congressman's trial into a referendum on the behavior of law enforcement, Gibson said.
He asked Bartle to shut down any attempt to present a defense to jurors that ignores the evidence and urges them to base their verdict on factors outside of the courtroom.
But Fattah lawyer Riley H. Ross called his client's comments entirely appropriate for a politician seeking to persuade constituents to elect him to a 12th term in office. He called the government's motion premature.
"We haven't tried to put any evidence before the jury," Ross said. "There hasn't even been a jury selected yet."
Fattah's trial is scheduled for May 2, six days after the primary election.