One day after coasting to reelection, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah faced deepening legal problems with the guilty plea of a second member of his inner circle.
Political consultant Thomas Lindenfeld, 59, of Washington, pleaded Wednesday to a count of wire fraud for taking part in schemes that prosecutors say Fattah engineered to siphon off federal money to finance his losing bid for Philadelphia mayor in 2007.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Gibson said the government would seek a more lenient sentence for Lindenfeld because he was cooperating.
A spokeswoman for Lindenfeld said he was remorseful.
"Tom takes full responsibility for his actions, and regrets participating in illegal activity," the spokeswoman said. "He has and is cooperating fully with the government."
In the initial scam, prosecutors contend, Fattah illegally borrowed $1 million from a donor for the 2007 race - Alfred Lord, a former chief executive of the massive Sallie Mae lending agency. The money went to buy ads, which were handled by Lindenfeld.
Neither Lindenfeld nor former longtime Fattah staffer Greg Naylor, who allegedly distributed $200,000 from the loan in street money, has responded to calls seeking comment since the arrangement was detailed in court documents in August, when Naylor pleaded guilty to corruption charges.
When Lord demanded his money back amid the financial crisis, Fattah orchestrated a series of shuffles to tap into the account of a federally funded nonprofit and route the money through two intermediaries, including Lindenfeld's consulting business, and back to the donor. Lord faces no charges.
The second scam involved Fattah's winning congressional approval for a $500,000 grant to Lindenfeld's "Blue Guardians," which supposedly was going to help low-income communities in the Caribbean and along the Atlantic Coast.
According to documents filed by prosecutors, the earmark was to come from the budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which Fattah oversaw. But the scheme collapsed after a reporter filed a request to NOAA under the Freedom of Information Act in March 2010 for details on Blue Guardians.
The Inquirer request set off alarm bells within NOAA. Lindenfeld then told the agency that he was dropping the proposal.
Gibson said the reporter's questions about Blue Guardians and the review of the nonprofit by NOAA officials "basically forced the coconspirators to pull the plug."
Gibson oversaw the investigation with Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Gray and FBI agent Eric Ruona.
Fattah, a Philadelphia Democrat who won his 11th term Tuesday by a vote of 163,000 to 16,000, issued this statement Wednesday: "It is disappointing that a second individual associated with me has pleaded guilty to wrongdoing. I spent today thanking the citizens of my district for their vote of confidence.
"Those citizens can be assured that as I previously stated, I have never been involved in any illegal conduct nor misappropriation of taxpayer funds."
Lindenfeld, who built his business with clients including a long-shot Senate candidate named Barack Obama, is the second Fattah confidante to plead guilty to corruption in connection with an investigation that clearly has the congressman in its sights. Naylor also agreed to cooperate when he entered his plea.
While Fattah is identified in court documents only as "Elected Official A," the context, as well as sources, has made it obvious that he is the politician under scrutiny.
Lindenfeld, who at one time was a partner of Obama adviser David Axelrod, helped get John F. Street elected mayor of Philadelphia and propel Obama into the presidency.
In court, prosecutors told U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle 3d that the count Lindenfeld pleaded guilty to carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, though he is unlikely to receive such a sentence. Lindenfeld, released on his own recognizance, is to be sentenced March 25.
Inquirer staff writer