U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah is a victim, his lawyers said Monday at the start of his federal corruption trial, of two unscrupulous political aides who stole in his name to pay off his debts, all without his knowledge.
But prosecutors balked at that depiction, calling the Philadelphia Democrat a thief and a corrupt politician eager to shift blame for his crimes to anyone but himself.
The conflicting portraits of Fattah - who rose from West Philadelphia more than two decades ago to become a congressman and eventually a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee - opened what is expected to be one of the region's most closely watched political trials in years.
"The congressman abused his office and authority over and over again," Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Gray said, "by taking bribes and stealing to protect his own interests."
Fattah, 59, has repeatedly dismissed the government's case and accused the Justice Department of carrying out a years-long vendetta against him and his family. Since he and four codefendants were indicted last summer on racketeering conspiracy charges, they have responded by trumpeting their records of public service.
But as prosecutors delivered their opening remarks to the six-man, six-woman jury Monday, they promised a well-documented exploration of thefts committed over the years from Fattah-founded charities, federal grants, and the congressman's own campaign coffers.
All of Fattah's crimes, Gray said, were rooted in one problem - a lack of money. And whether looking to pay his son's college debt, or to pay for a vacation home in the Poconos, or to finance his failed and costly 2007 bid to become Philadelphia's mayor, Fattah turned again and again to other people's money, the prosecutor said.
"Chaka Fattah, his associates, his staffers, and the nonprofits he controlled all conspired together toward the same goal," Gray said. "To steal to pay the congressman's debts and sustain his congressional career."
When lawyers for Fattah and his codefendants addressed the jury, they pointed fingers in all directions.
Mark Lee, a lawyer for Fattah, took aim at Gregory Naylor and Thomas Lindenfeld, two political consultants who worked for Fattah's 2007 mayoral campaign. After pleading guilty to crimes of their own, both are expected to testify as key government witnesses against the congressman.
Both Naylor and Lindenfeld have said that they, on Fattah's orders, secured an illegal $1 million loan from former Sallie Mae executive Al Lord to prop up Fattah's flagging mayoral bid.
When it came time to pay it back, the pair has alleged, they followed Fattah's lead in using taxpayer money, laundering it through an education nonprofit the congressman founded and a business owned by a Fattah-family friend before getting it back to Lord.
But as Lee told it Monday, the congressman had nothing to do with the scheme. He told jurors that if Naylor and Lindenfeld took any illegal actions to obtain or pay back the debt, they did it on their own.
"This is a case about two men who cut deals with the federal government to keep them out of federal prison," he said.
Bonnie Bowser, the manager in Fattah's Philadelphia office, sought to shift the blame upward. She is accused of faking a paper trail to hide that Fattah's campaign debts were being paid with public funds.
Her lawyer, Ronald Levine, insisted Monday that she was only following orders.
"Powerful and experienced men, senior to Miss Bowser, provided her information and direction," he said. "She simply had no reason to mistrust what she was given."
A lawyer for Karen Nicholas, the former CEO of the Fattah-founded nonprofit through which the loan repayments were allegedly funneled, hurled accusations at the government itself.
"The only conspiracy the government is going to be able to prove against Ms. Nicholas and Congressman Fattah," attorney Ann Flannery said, "is a conspiracy to help underprivileged young people to achieve higher education."
'The odd couple of politics'
But while the others sought to put distance between themselves and the alleged actions of their codefendants in opening statements Monday, one man - lobbyist and Rendell-era Deputy Mayor Herbert Vederman - depicted himself and Fattah as close as could be.
"Some might call them best friends," said Lee, describing the relationship between the men. Vederman's lawyer, Robert Welsh, described them as "the odd couple of politics," prone to taking long car rides together just to spend time in each other's company.
Vederman is accused of paying Fattah bribes for years to enlist his help in landing a political appointment from the Obama administration.
While Fattah set up meetings with White House officials and even pressed a letter extolling Vederman's virtues directly into the president's hands, the lobbyist allegedly showered him with gifts in the form of tuition payments for the congressman's au pair, cash given to Fattah's adult children, and an $18,000 down payment on a Poconos vacation home.
Welsh maintained Monday that Fattah's efforts on behalf of his client and the gifts Vederman gave his friend were unrelated.
"The government's efforts to draw a link between them, and say one caused the other, will fail," he said. "Can a friend really bribe a friend?"
Throughout the day's proceedings, Fattah sat quietly at the defense table, smiling and taking notes on a legal pad. But although the courtroom gallery behind him was packed, there were notable absences.
Fattah's wife, former NBC10 anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah, was nowhere to be seen. She has not been charged in the case, but prosecutors have alleged that she was aware of - if not an active participant in - a scheme to fake the sale of her Porsche to Vederman in 2012 to cover up one of his alleged bribes.
Also missing was the FBI's lead case agent, Richard J. Haag, who has not appeared in court since he admitted last year to tipping off an Inquirer reporter to a 2012 raid on the Ritz-Carlton condo of Fattah's son, Chaka "Chip" Jr.
The younger Fattah was sentenced to prison this year in an unrelated bank-and-tax-fraud case, and the congressman's lawyers have sought to make the FBI leak an issue in their client's trial. But U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III has deemed the issue irrelevant.
Fattah's lawyer, Lee, warned jurors as he closed his opening remarks Monday that the expected eight-week trial could offer a glimpse of the political system that some might find "distasteful."
But, he said, "Philadelphia politics is not on trial. Earmarks, campaign spending, donations to nonprofits are not on trial.
"Unless those acts cross a specific line, they are not crimes."
The trial is expected to continue Tuesday.