Rep. Chaka Fattah is asking voters for help to pay his legal bills as he fights federal corruption charges that threaten to end his political career.
The Philadelphia Democrat unveiled his pitch to potential donors this week on a new website, Fattah2016.com. He's asking backers to open their wallets in increments ranging from $25 to $5,000. Generous supporters can even contribute to his reelection campaign without even leaving the page.
The fund, dubbed the "Preservation of Public Service Legal Trust," was created to "ensure that I have the best people and resources necessary to defend my name and my good works in Congress on behalf of the citizens of the Second Congressional District," Fattah said in a statement on the site.
With its creation, Fattah joins a long list of public officials who have turned to similar fund-raising methods after finding themselves on the wrong side of federal prosecutors. Those ranks include Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), who is facing trial on federal conspiracy and bribery charges in October.
Prosecutors have accused Fattah of taking bribes and misusing campaign funds, charitable donations, and federal grant money under his control to enrich his family and members of his inner circle.
He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and vowed to contest the charges even while running for a 12th term in office next year.
The Fattah family has not had much success raising outside money to pay legal bills in the past.
The congressman launched a separate defense fund for son Chaka "Chip" Fattah Jr., when he was indicted on federal bank and tax fraud charges last year. But not even renowned fund-raisers such as former Gov. Ed Rendell and former Mayor W. Wilson Goode, named cochairmen of that reserve, could muster enough cash to make a difference.
Fattah Jr. said earlier this year the campaign raised about $5,000. He has since decided to represent himself at a trial scheduled for next month.
His father's efforts on behalf of his own defense are likely to be more robust.
Congressional rules allow House members to use campaign donations to pay legal expenses related to their official duties. Representatives can also establish separate legal funds to accept donations of up to $5,000 a year from individuals or organizations, said Robert Walker, a former chief counsel for the House ethics committee.
The committee must approve the creation of a dedicated defense fund, and all donations and expenses must be reported quarterly to the House clerk's office, Walker said.
In an interview Wednesday, Fattah dodged questions as to why he decided to seek public help, while repeatedly comparing his defense fund to the one Menendez set up last year.
Fattah's campaign finance reports suggest a legal fight that has already proved costly. According to his most recent disclosures, filed before his indictment in July, Fattah had paid lawyers $55,000 to deal with the criminal investigation in the first six months of this year.
Those costs are expected to increase dramatically as he heads toward trial in May.