A federal judge rejected former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah's bid for a new trial Thursday, spurning arguments that a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that narrowed the legal definition of bribery would have changed the outcome of his case.
In a 101-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III overturned Fattah's convictions on four counts of fraud and falsifying records, but otherwise endorsed the jury's conclusion that he had accepted bribes from wealthy supporter Herbert Vederman in exchange for official acts.
The decision was one of the first to affirm a guilty verdict in a federal bribery case since the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the conviction of former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell in June - a ruling that legal experts feared would make prosecuting public corruption cases more difficult.
"Every time that Vederman provided a benefit to Fattah, Fattah engaged in some official action . . . for Vederman," the judge wrote. "The evidence before the jury was overwhelming."
Lawyers for Fattah - who now faces sentencing on 18 counts including racketeering conspiracy, money laundering, and fraud - declined to comment.
Vederman's lawyers did not return phone calls seeking comment Thursday. Although the judge upheld their client's bribery conviction, he overturned the jury's verdict on the most significant charge Vederman faced - racketeering conspiracy.
Both men had viewed the Supreme Court's decision in the McDonnell case as their best chance to stay out of prison.
The ruling, issued just days after a jury convicted Fattah in June, held that federal bribery laws do not cover gifts exchanged for routine courtesies such as setting up meetings, hosting events, or making calls on behalf of constituents.
Lawyers for Fattah and Vederman argued that the men's relationship fell squarely within those criteria.
As prosecutors told it at trial, Vederman, a former Philadelphia deputy mayor, showered Fattah with gifts including cash payments to the congressman's children, college tuition for his South African au pair, and $18,000 to help with the purchase of a vacation home in the Poconos.
In exchange, Fattah gave Vederman's girlfriend a job in his district office and lobbied other government officials - including President Obama and Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D., Pa.) - in hopes of landing Vederman a job as an ambassador.
But in his ruling Thursday, Bartle drew distinctions between the relationship shared by the congressman and his benefactor and the facts at the heart of McDonnell's case.
McDonnell, a Republican, was accused of pushing state universities to do research studies on a dietary supplement in exchange for more than $165,000 in purported bribes.
The Supreme Court ruled that McDonnell's actions, although unseemly, did not constitute an official act in his role as governor, and that prosecutors had not established a clear quid pro quo agreement between him and the wealthy businessman who provided the governor with gifts.
Bartle, in his opinion on Fattah's case Thursday, said that prosecutors had "overwhelmingly" cleared that threshold and had proven that Fattah's acts on Vederman's behalf were "specific and focused exercises of governmental power."
"Unlike much of Gov. McDonnell's activity, Fattah clearly crossed the line beyond mere expression of support for Vederman for an ambassadorship," Bartle wrote. "Fattah . . . was without question exerting pressure on the president and Sen. Casey with the intent that they would act on that advice."
But in overturning Vederman's racketeering-conspiracy conviction, Bartle ruled that his bribes were too disconnected from Fattah's other crimes to be considered part of the same conspiracy.
The congressman and several political allies also were found guilty in June of repeatedly stealing taxpayer money, charitable contributions, and campaign donations to cover Fattah's personal and political debts - including an illegal $1 million loan to his failed 2007 mayoral campaign.
The judge has not set a date for their sentencings.
Fattah, 59, resigned his seat in Congress shortly after his trial.