Former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah leaned heavily on a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that narrowed the definition of political bribery in asking a federal court in Philadelphia on Monday to overturn his conviction on corruption charges.
The former congressman's lawyers had telegraphed the move after the high court vacated the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell in June, a decision that came days after a federal jury found Fattah guilty on 22 counts in a case with some parallels.
In overturning the McDonnell verdict, the justices sketched out more precise guidelines for prosecutors building cases under the law that bars public officials from taking gifts in exchange for official actions. That standard should be applied to Fattah's case, his attorney Bruce Merenstein wrote in court papers filed late Monday before U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III.
"The Supreme Court's McDonnell decision undercuts every one of the arguments the government made here that Congressman Fattah committed or agreed to commit an 'official act,' " Merenstein wrote. "Indeed, the government's arguments in this case as to what constituted an 'official act' tracked precisely the arguments rejected by the Supreme Court in McDonnell."
Prosecutors have not yet responded to Fattah's new legal arguments, but previously dismissed the idea that the McDonnell decision would have a significant impact on Fattah's case.
Bartle, who presided over the trial of Fattah and four codefendants in June, has not signaled whether he intends to hold a hearing on the arguments.
In tossing McDonnell's conviction, the Supreme Court held that federal bribery laws do not cover routine courtesies such as setting up meetings, hosting events, or making calls on behalf of constituents.
The former governor, a Republican, had been accused of using his office to help promote a dietary supplement backed by a wealthy businessman and supporter. McDonnell asked subordinates to push state universities to do research studies on the product, and McDonnell's wife hosted a launch party for the business at the governor's mansion.
In exchange, the Justice Department alleged, the businessman showered the McDonnells with more than $165,000 in gifts, including trips on a private plane, designer clothes, a Rolex, and payments toward a wedding reception for the governor's daughter.
McDonnell's lawyers maintained that despite the gifts, he took no official action to benefit the businessman and did not urge any state official to do so. He claimed that he merely helped a constituent gain access to key government officials by setting up introductions.
Fattah's lawyers pressed similar claims Monday to defend the ex-congressman's relationship with Herbert Vederman, a former Philadelphia deputy mayor and campaign donor, who was convicted of bribing Fattah in hopes of landing an ambassadorship and other perks.
As prosecutors told it at trial, Vederman made cash payments to Fattah's children, paid college tuition for Fattah's South African au pair, and gave $18,000 intended to help the congressman close on a vacation home in the Poconos.
Lawyers for both men described the gifts as nothing more sinister than evidence of their friendship. Fattah pushed Vederman as a candidate for an ambassadorship because he believed him to be qualified, they argued.
In their filings Monday, Fattah's lawyers shifted their argument toward painting the efforts Fattah made on Vederman's behalf - letters he wrote in 2008 to President Obama and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) as well as several meetings he set up with White House staffers or appointees - as outside the boundaries of what the Supreme Court has defined as an "official act."
"The [Supreme] Court rejected the notion at the heart of the government's argument here: That the simple fact that Congressman Fattah was a congressman rendered his letter-writing and phone calls on behalf of Mr. Vederman . . . an 'official act,' " Merenstein wrote.
Vederman's appellate lawyer Noel Francisco - who also represented McDonnell before the Supreme Court - echoed those arguments in his motion to have Vederman's conviction overturned.
"McDonnell clarified that not everything an official does in an official capacity counts as 'official action,' " Francisco wrote. "Arranging meetings and making phone calls do not suffice; nor does expressing 'support' for an action, or contacting officials on a constituent's behalf.' "
Fattah's bribery conviction was only one piece of the 22-count racketeering conspiracy case that prosecutors brought against him. He also was convicted of schemes involving the payback of a $1 million illegal campaign loan during his failed 2007 bid to become mayor of Philadelphia and his attempt to pay off a political consultant by directing congressional earmarks to a fake nonprofit that he encouraged the man to create.
Merenstein argued Monday that there was insufficient evidence to support the guilty verdicts on any of those charges, but he said that if Bartle sided with the congressman on his bribery convictions, then Fattah should at minimum get a new trial on his unrelated counts because of a "prejudicial spillover" effect from the wrongful convictions.
"The language the government used was guaranteed to smear Congressman Fattah in a way that ensured that, whatever the jury thought of the evidence of other alleged schemes, it concluded that [he] had violated the trust invested in him as an elected official," he wrote.
Fattah resigned from office after his conviction, ending a 20-year career representing a district that includes most of Philadelphia and parts of Montgomery County. He faces sentencing in October.
His codefendants also challenged their convictions on similar grounds in filings Monday.