IN HIS 30th year in elected office, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah is a "career politician," and he's not afraid to admit it. He now serves as the top Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee for commerce, justice and science agencies and has become a champion for neuroscience research. But his political career has also caught the interest of federal investigators, who last year subpoenaed his property-tax records - the latest move in what Fattah's lawyer said was a seven-year probe.
Daily News writer Sean Collins Walsh toured a convention of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics with Fattah last month in Maryland and sat down with him in his congressional office to see what he was up to inside Congress and out.
Q At the convention, I heard a Lockheed Martin representative tell you the federal government should let academics and companies take more risks in space exploration. What are your thoughts on that?
Ever since we had the Challenger tragedy, there's been a more cautious set of concerns put at the forefront of some of these issues. But the administrator of NASA has said before, "Look, there are things that we're going to attempt to do that we're going to fail." He said, "If we're not failing at something, we're not doing science that's worthy of the country. We're just doing what we already know."
That's what the president has put in place in the whole NASA mission, to explore the unknown - Mars or deep space. Through pushing the envelope, there will be many more failures than successes, but eventually we'll do it.
Q What's on your legislative agenda right now?
I have a bill called America's FOCUS Act. This is an initiative focused on dollars that come into the federal government through settlements when some corporate wrongdoing has been alleged. And if you open the Wall Street Journal any day you will see company A paying some fine, some settlement.
We're interested in those dollars being invested in three areas in which there's bipartisan agreement: youth mentoring, this tough issue we call justice reinvestment [for former inmates] and then medical research.
Q Where does that money go now?
It goes into a dark hole. Nobody can tell you. We spent years asking. The Justice Department can't keep the money because you don't want them to have a perverse incentive to go after someone. The money ends up in the Treasury, but it is not part of appropriations process because you never know if J.P. Morgan, for example, is going to litigate for 10 years or pay.
Q Got it. Are you running for re-election this year?
This is a government building, so we don't do politics here. But what I've said in almost every speech on my neuroscience initiative is that I'm going to be here doing this work for at least the next decade.
Q In October, your lawyer said that federal investigators have been looking at you for seven years. Why do you think the probe has gone on so long?
The only people who can actually speak about the matters you're talking about are the people who are doing it. But as a general matter, what I've said is that I am a senior member of Congress and any review of my activities is appropriate, as long as the review is appropriate.
Q You ran in the last big mayor's race, in 2007. The field for the 2015 primary is now taking shape. Do you have a favorite candidate? Will the Fattah political organization field someone?
My involvement in politics has to do with helping people. I'm interested in how the mayor's race in 2015 sets us up to deal with what I see as the major element of whether Philadelphia can live up to its potential. The focus needs to be on the people who are in the shadows.
We can build all the shiny new buildings - and I'm not knocking new buildings, all this is wonderful - but if a fourth of the people are mired down in generational poverty, it's impossible in my view for the city to live up to its potential.