A lawyer with some prominent political friends borrowed $150,000 from a city program five years ago with the goal of expanding his new Philadelphia law practice.
Mikel D. Jones, who grew up with U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah and who works as a staffer for another congressman in South Florida, repaid only $20,000.
He has now been charged with fraud by federal prosecutors who say much of the money went to pay personal expenses and for Eagles and 76ers tickets. Jones also is charged with defrauding a hedge fund that lent him millions to pursue cases.
The case, scheduled for trial in September, opens a window onto a troubled business-development program formerly run by City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr.
Although Mikel Jones repaid only a fraction of what he owed, that was more than most: nine of 12 people who received money have paid back nothing at all, according to city records.
Some of those other recipients had political ties of their own.
Another loan went to Maven Inc., a lobbying and public relations firm owned by Melonease Shaw, a longtime friend of influential State Rep. Dwight Evans who has received a number of contracts from public agencies and who is active in local politics. City records show the loan was for $150,000, but Shaw said she received $90,000 and did not pay anything back because no one ever asked her to.
The program, known as Minority Ventures Partners, was established by the now-defunct Philadelphia Commercial Development Corp. using a $1.5 million state economic-development grant.
It began lending money in 2004 and was shut down when the Nutter administration closed PCDC in 2009 due to what Deputy Commerce Director Kevin Dow called "mismanagement" and "a lack of transparency."
Some of the details about the program come from Mikel Jones himself, who talked to the FBI for 10 hours after agents knocked on his door early one January morning in Boynton Beach, Fla.
"Jones stated that PCDC was a good organization but 'sometimes politics got in the way,' " said the FBI's report on the interview.
Agents spent much of the time asking Jones about Fattah and other politicians, according to the report. They suggested he could help himself by wearing a wire, according to court papers filed by his lawyer, David M. Garvin of Miami.
"There was a suspicion he got preferential treatment, which was the genesis of this investigation," Garvin said in an interview. He said prosecutors have twisted a business dispute into a criminal case, and said Jones would fight the charges in court.
Curtis Jones, former PCDC director, said politicians and connections played no role in who got the money.
"No one should be able to gain favor because they're your friend, but no one should be denied access because they are," said Jones, who left PCDC in 2007 to run for council. He is a longtime friend but no relation to Mikel Jones.
Aqil Sabur, who vetted and approved all the loans, said politicians never tried to interfere in his decisions. He also said he tried to establish a collection program but ran out of time before the city killed PCDC in 2009.
"That wasn't a checkoff box on the application - 'Who do you know in politics?' " Sabur said. "There was no political pressure of any sort."
The FBI case grew out of an investigation by the city Inspector General's Office that continues. Dow said his office was waiting for the investigation to wrap up before trying to collect.
Shaw has not made any payments even though she now has a long list of clients and, since 2007, has received more than $358,000 for lobbying work from the city and the Philadelphia School District.
She said she was ready to pay the money back, but "I found out on the street that PCDC didn't exist anymore."
The idea behind the Minority Ventures program was to help small, minority-owned businesses get on their feet. Curtis Jones said the deals technically were not loans, with installment payments, but investments; the businesses were supposed to pay into an escrow account, then pay the entire sum back, plus a percentage of their earnings, at the end.
One of the people who applied was Troy F. Yancey, a hard-luck barber who ran Troy's Chop Shop in West Philadelphia. Yancey, 45, had survived being shot twice in an attack at a dance club. In 2006, he was in hock to a subprime lender.
Things started looking up, Yancey said, after his friend James J. Baker Jr., a former aide to Fattah, put him in touch with Curtis Jones.
Jones said Yancey was given standard scrutiny and approved for $90,000. As part of the deal, Minority Venture Partners paid off the lender and took title to his property.
Almost immediately, the building was wiped out by a fire.
Minority Ventures got its money because it had insurance, but Yancey was wiped out. Now, the shop is closed, and the city is holding a $1,040 tax lien left in the name of Minority Ventures.
Baker and Fattah did not respond to requests for comment.
Another applicant was Mikel Jones, who grew up in a tough West Philadelphia neighborhood with Fattah, but who had become a high-profile political figure in South Florida. He has worked for more than 15 years as an aide to U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, who was elected to Congress after corruption allegations cost him his seat as a federal judge. Hastings was acquitted at trial but impeached by the U.S. Senate.
Hastings said he suspended Jones after the indictment. "I hope so much that he is exonerated," he said.
In 2005, Mikel Jones decided to set up a legal practice in Philadelphia. He had known Curtis Jones for decades and had gone to college with his wife. They were both involved in the House of Umoja, the young men's organization run by Fattah's mother.
Once he applied, Mikel Jones told the FBI, he dealt not with Curtis Jones but with Sabur.
Mikel Jones was supposed to use the $150,000 to expand his firm, but instead he used part of it to pay his wife's American Express bills.
He told the FBI the sports tickets were intended to woo clients. But the agents showed him pictures taken at Eagles games in October that showed his son and niece in the seats.
Jones also may have used loan funds to pay for a $50,000 birthday party for his wife in 2007, the FBI report showed.
"Did I use some of the PCDC money for personal use? Yes," the FBI quoted Jones as saying. "But I have to pay myself something. . . . If I don't survive, the law firm doesn't survive, and the purpose of the loan was to help the law firm survive."
He said he should not have mixed city money with personal expenses but said he was a "sloppy bookkeeper."
Garvin has filed a motion asking the judge to throw out Mikel Jones' statements.
He also has tax troubles; he has not paid personal or business income taxes since 2004. Garvin has formally asked the government for a review of the tax case before filing any tax charges.
Sabur said he and an assistant were overwhelmed in trying to manage PCDC's overall portfolio of about 175 loans. When the city announced plans to merge PCDC with another organization, he said he tried to do what he could to close out the portfolios.
He asked Mikel Jones to pay up. But Jones said he could pay only $20,000. Sabur said he figured something was better than nothing. No one pressured him to make the deal, he said.
In fact, the indictment says, Mikel Jones had "substantial funds" at the time and was spending tens of thousands on tickets and other luxury items.
Garvin said the $20,000 was a fair settlement because Sabur was asking for payment a year early.
Shaw said programs like Minority Ventures fill a crucial niche, helping businesses that wouldn't otherwise have access to capital. When she got the money, she said, she had just two clients; a year later, she had four more.
"I'm quite comfortable that, had I not had that support, I would not be here as a business," she said.