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Former Philadelphia Congressman Chaka Fattah sentenced to 10 years in prison

Former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah was sentenced Monday to 10 years in prison, one of the longest terms of incarceration ever imposed on a member of Congress for federal corruption crimes.

Former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah exits federal court after being sentenced to 10 years in prison Monday.
Former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah exits federal court after being sentenced to 10 years in prison Monday.Read moreJessica Griffin / Staff Photographer

Former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah was sentenced Monday to 10 years in prison, one of the longest terms of incarceration ever imposed on a member of Congress for federal corruption crimes.

The Philadelphia Democrat remained stoic as U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III announced the prison term - half as long as the two decades Fattah spent in Congress.

Addressing the court, Fattah expressed regret for how his conviction had affected his constituents, but stopped short of fully acknowledging guilt.

"The investigation and the trial has been the most disappointing event in my now 60-year life," he said. "I've helped tens of millions of people, and that has nothing to do with the fact that I have been found on the wrong side of these questions by a jury."

Bartle called Fattah's theft of thousands of dollars from taxpayers and charitable organizations "astonishing" and "extremely serious," especially for an elected official representing one of the poorest congressional districts in the country and one whose own $174,000-a-year salary put him among the "1 percent."

"You abused the trust they placed in you time and time again," he said of the voters who elected Fattah 11 times to represent them in Washington. "Your flagrant behavior undermines the confidence of the citizenry in all public institutions."

Monday's sentencing offered a damning postscript to Fattah's nearly three decades in public life.

The son of activists, he rose from a West Philadelphia neighborhood plagued by gang violence to become one of the region's longest-serving members of Congress. But his career buckled under the weight of the Justice Department's investigation.

Still, his punishment could have been far worse.

His sentence fell below the 17 to 22 years recommended by prosecutors but remains the second-longest prison term ever received by a member of Congress, topped only by the 13 years former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson (D., La.) received in 2009 for soliciting millions of dollars in bribes.

"That's about as good as we could have expected," Fattah lawyer Albert S. Dandridge turned to tell a courtroom packed with supporters and family members moments after the sentence was imposed.

Prosecutors, too, said they were satisfied with the result.

"We are pleased with today's outcome while also recognizing the tragedy of this defendant's fall from grace," U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger said. "We hope that the lengthy prison sentence imposed today deters those public officials who might be tempted to engage in corruption."

Fattah, who has maintained his innocence since the jury's verdict and blamed investigators for pursuing a years-long witch hunt against his family, said he plans to appeal.

Though Bartle ordered the former congressman to begin serving his sentence Jan. 25, he has yet to rule on a defense request that would allow Fattah to remain free until the appeals court review is complete.

The sentence capped a tough year for Fattah, who lost his first primary in two decades to U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Pa.) just days before his trial began.

His wife, former NBC10 news anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah, though not charged in his case, saw her career end this year after she was linked to the sham sale in 2012 of her Porsche convertible, a transaction prosecutors said was intended to cover up a bribe to her husband. She sat in the courtroom Monday typing on an iPad during the hearing.

And his son, Chaka "Chip" Jr., was sentenced to five years in prison in February in a bank and tax fraud case tied to loans he fraudulently obtained to fund a luxury lifestyle.

But while the younger Fattah's crimes stemmed from his extravagant taste in fancy cars, clothes, and apartments, most of the congressman's misdeeds centered on money he owed creditors after a disastrous 2007 bid to become mayor of Philadelphia.

Addressing the court Monday, Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Gibson said the ex-congressman's trial proved his willingness to sell out his office and his constituents over and over again.

He stole from some of the same causes for which he sought credit, including the education nonprofit he raided to repay an illegal $1 million loan from the mayoral campaign.

Jurors also found that he agreed to misdirect federal grant money to a fake nonprofit in order to pay a political strategist, siphoned funds from his campaign coffer to cover his son's college debts, and accepted more than $27,000 in bribes from wealthy fund-raiser Herbert Vederman, who hoped to land a White House appointment as an ambassador.

"That type of conduct cannot go unpunished," Gibson said. "You will never find another individual who knew more intimately how destructive corrupt conduct could be. He knew exactly what he was doing."

But Fattah's lawyers urged leniency, citing the good their client had accomplished during his three decades of public service, first as a state legislator, as a champion for education and public housing reform, and then in Washington, where he became a leading advocate for brain research, scholarship programs, and antiviolence measures.

Bartle seemed unimpressed, though the sentence he eventually imposed was closer to what the defense had proposed.

"It was your job as a congressman to do good work," the judge said. "This court must signal to the public that your crimes are unacceptable."

In addition to his prison term, Fattah was ordered to serve three years on federal probation upon his release and pay, along with his codefendants, $614,000 in restitution to the federal agencies he defrauded.

Those codefendants - a group of four friends and former staffers convicted of aiding Fattah in his crimes - will be sentenced at hearings scheduled throughout the week.

Vederman, the first to face punishment, received a two-year prison term Monday afternoon for the bribes he paid Fattah.

"I made bad decisions," Vederman told Bartle. "I was careless with my friends. I was careless with my money. I was careless with the public's trust. I accept responsibility."

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