The crimes Chaka Fattah was found guilty of Tuesday won't be mistaken for small-time. Money stolen to pay off illicit political debt was laundered through charities and companies. A network of aides and associates handled the details. Bribes were masked as a fictitious Porsche purchase or a sort of Fattah family child-care scholarship. And when the longtime Democratic congressman was convicted after a nine-year investigation, a monthlong trial, and three days of jury deliberations, it was as the captain of a criminal organization.
No, this wasn't penny-ante corruption. It required intelligence, effort, and leadership. And it typified the gross misdirection of talent and promise that is Fattah's legacy.
The considerable abilities misapplied to such schemes may well be the same ones that kept Fattah from being relegated - like too many Philadelphia legislators - to a backbench. Over the course of more than two decades in Congress and another in the state legislature, he successfully advocated programs to encourage underprivileged youths to go to college and prevent unnecessary home foreclosures. And he rose to an influential position on the House Appropriations Committee, allowing him to boost a variety of health, science, and educational causes as well as sustain a cadre of pet charities, some of which were implicated in his downfall.
To contemplate Fattah's 22-count conviction, which is likely to put him in prison, is to wonder what he could have achieved if not so distracted by the pursuit of power and privilege by any means. It is also to understand that he grew accustomed to the idea that he was clever enough to do what he wanted - regardless of the rules that constrain the less fortunate and accomplished.
Fattah's casual confidence in his ability to keep the public in the dark was evident in his defense, which asked jurors to believe that he and coconspirator Herb Vederman - a Rendell-era deputy mayor who gave the Fattah family tens of thousands of dollars and got the congressman to lobby the president himself for an ambassadorship - were just great friends. Even as Fattah's lawyers emphasized that supposedly personal connection, they sought to distance the congressman from others. Fattah's close aides admitted pilfering public and charity funds to pay off an illegal million-dollar loan to his failed mayoral campaign, but the defense argued preposterously that it was all their idea.
The congressman had long since adopted an attitude of smiling nonchalance as the investigation and prosecution escalated, repeatedly running for and winning reelection until this year's primary, when he was denied the Democratic nomination for a 12th term. As the Inquirer's Jeremy Roebuck noted, even as a federal prosecutor closing the case against him decried his "astounding" arrogance, Fattah munched on a snack and grinned.
After the verdict, the congressman issued a statement reiterating his accomplishments and declined to say whether he would relinquish his office. Having lost the confidence of his constituents, a trial by jury, and untold opportunities to serve his city honestly and well, he may be the last person who believes it's rightfully his.