Less than two years into a five-year prison term, Chaka "Chip" Fattah Jr. returned to court Tuesday hoping to persuade a federal judge to award him nearly $1 million in earnings he says he lost due to publicity surrounding the investigation that ended in his 2015 conviction on bank- and tax-fraud charges.
It did not go as he had hoped.
The day began with the 34-year-old son of former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah pleading to delay the first day of a bench trial in his suit against the federal government – a request that U.S. District Judge Timothy J. Savage flatly denied.
It ended with the son on the witness stand enduring a withering cross-examination during which Justice Department lawyers accused him of trying to fleece the government just like the banks, clients, and taxpayers he was convicted of defrauding nearly two years ago.
"He isn't entitled to any of the damages he seeks," government lawyer Rob Silverblatt said. "Mr. Fattah himself is responsible for any injuries he suffered."
At the outset, Fattah said he had not had enough time to prepare his case, had brought no exhibits from his prison cell, and had no witnesses ready to testify. At one point, he appeared to have been caught so flat-footed by the decision to move forward with the proceedings that he paused, hung his head, and told the judge he was prepared to leave the fate of his case up to the court without presenting any evidence.
But once Savage talked him down, Fattah – dressed in his olive prison jumpsuit and again acting as his own lawyer, as he did at his criminal trial – pressed on, arguing that his life had been ruined by a leaky FBI and IRS investigation.
"I lost my sole source of income," he said. "Nobody wants to do business with somebody that's on the front page of the papers under federal investigation."
Jurors in Fattah's 2015 criminal trial had accepted prosecutors' depiction of him as a con artist who bilked banks, taxpayers, and clients of his many businesses out of more than $1 million.
They also had concluded that he, along with others, had swindled the Philadelphia School District out of hundreds of thousands of dollars between 2010 and 2012 by submitting inflated budgets for two alternative schools run by Delaware Valley High School, a for-profit education firm at which he held titles ranging from chief operating officer to marketing consultant.
Yet in his civil suit, filed six months before he was indicted, Fattah claimed that it was publicity surrounding the investigation – and not the investigation itself – that cost him his $12,000-a-month contract with Delaware Valley. He alleged that federal agents gave reporters advance notice of a February 2012 raid on his Ritz-Carlton Residences condo across from City Hall and that the resulting news stories about the probe diminished his earning potential.
With no job and no way to pay his $3,500-a-month rent at the Ritz, Fattah was forced to move back in with his mother in West Philadelphia, he told Savage on Tuesday.
"I couldn't pay for pizza – or any other kind of lunch," he said. "I couldn't pay my phone bill. I had to rely on money from my mom or on some occasions my dad to pay my bills, to occasionally go out for dinner, or even to buy a cheesesteak."
Justice Department officials initially denied that their investigators had anything to do with the news coverage of the case. But weeks into the criminal trial, Richard Haag, the lead FBI agent, made a surprise admission from the witness stand that he had tipped off an Inquirer reporter to the search.
Addressing the court Tuesday, Silverblatt, of the Justice Department, said that the government had accepted responsibility for Haag's "regretful disclosure" and agreed that Fattah was entitled to $1,000 in damages.
But he characterized Fattah's current bid for close to $1 million as both "specious" and completely outside any credible projection of what he realistically might have earned — in part because he was unqualified for the job he held.
Government lawyers have suggested that Delaware Valley's president, David Shulick, hired Fattah – even though he had no college degree or experience working in education – to curry favor with his congressman father. They contend he wasn't fired after federal agents descended upon his home, but simply stopped showing up for work.
And what's more, they said, despite his professed concern about how the negative publicity would affect his future earnings, Fattah spent the weekend after the raid racing Ferraris at a track.
But the ex-lawmaker's son shot back Tuesday at the idea that he was dependent upon his father's former clout to make a living.
"He was the congressman for three years after the media leak," he said, "and I still didn't earn any money."
Like his son, the senior Fattah is incarcerated, serving a 10-year prison term after his conviction on bribery and corruption-related charges stemming from his theft of thousands of dollars from taxpayers, charitable organizations, and his own campaign coffers.
Fattah Jr.'s former boss, Shulick, potentially faces a similar fate. He was indicted last year for allegedly skimming funds from Delaware Valley High School's $2.1 million contract with the School District and is scheduled for trial in September.
As for the Ferrari racing, Fattah sheepishly responded Tuesday.
"It was, like, a Groupon bought by my girlfriend," he said. "It was already prepaid before the search warrant."