June 14, 2016
The fate of U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pennsylvania, now rests in the hands of a four-man, eight-woman federal jury that will likely zero in on the big themes of the corruption trial rather than examine every piece of evidence, legal experts say.
The allegations in the case have been attention-getting, to say the least—a congressman accused of stealing government money to pay back an illegal million-dollar loan, the sham sale of his newscaster wife’s Porsche to conceal a bribe, and the use of campaign funds to repay his son’s student loans.
These are the things that the 12 members of the jury will remember the most from a trial that began nearly a month ago, according to defense attorney Jeffrey Lindy.
Lindy, a former assistant U.S. attorney with the same office that is prosecuting Fattah, said the deliberations will hinge on only a couple of major points. He added that lawyers tend to get caught up in the minutiae found in reams of documents, but the jury doesn’t because it is simply too complicated.
“No jury can consider every single fact from a month-long trial,” Lindy said.
And that is what the prosecution is banking on, he added, that some schemes will “stick out like a sore thumb.”
But recognizable themes in a complex case works both ways, Florida criminal defense lawyer Daniel Rashbaum stressed. Jurors can also acquit on the basis of easily understood points, and Fattah needs only a single doubtful juror to escape conviction.
Rashbaum, who represented U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm, R-New York, in a tax evasion case, said, “At the end of the day, the jury is really going to be searching for a road map or theme.”
He continued, “You never know what one juror is going to latch onto. But you only need one; a hung jury isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”
Pointing the Finger
A major component of Fattah’s defense has been pointing the finger at the government’s cooperating witnesses: two political consultants and aides to Fattah’s mayoral campaign who have already pleaded guilty to the circumstances surrounding this case, Greg Naylor and Thomas Lindenfeld. Fattah’s lawyers claim the two were responsible for the theft and fraud alleged and were working with the government to save themselves from harsher sentences.
Attacking the credibility of the prosecution’s witnesses, Lindy noted, is commonly used in organized crime and drug trials.
“The snitch is trying to save his skin,” he said, summarizing the argument. “Jurors generally aren’t swayed by that, but it sometimes can work,” especially if the witness can be painted as untrustworthy.
In this case, Lindenfeld and Naylor testified that they had not been forthcoming with the FBI when agents first interviewed them in connection with the investigation into Fattah. That is something that jurors could focus on, according to Adam Lurie, a Washington lawyer and former prosecutor with the Department of Justice.
“It’s critical that the jury believes the cooperator; if they don’t it throws the entire case into question,” Lurie said.
Prosecutors will try to say that the witnesses were intimidated at the time and less prone to making truthful statements, Lurie said, but even so, “to the defense it’s a bit of a golden nugget.”
Friends Helping Friends
Second to Fattah’s alleged use of government money to repay the million-dollar loan, the prosecution devoted a substantial amount of time to its accusations that Fattah accepted an $18,000 bribe from his longtime friend Herbert Vederman, a former deputy mayor under then-Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell.
Prosecutors said the money was hidden through the sale of a Porsche driven by Fattah’s wife, ex-NBC 10 anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah.
Prosecutors allege that Vederman paid Fattah to help him secure an ambassadorship and to thank the congressman for giving his girlfriend a job on his staff.
But throughout the case Fattah and Vederman’s lawyers argued that the prosecution adopted an overly cynical view of two longtime friends helping each other out.
A similar defense is being used in another high-profile political corruption case. U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, accused of accepting bribes from a Florida eye doctor in exchange for advocating the doctor’s business interests, maintained that the charges against him are unfounded and a mischaracterization of his longtime friendship with the doctor.
“You have to explain it somehow,” Rashbaum said, “and one way to explain it is the longstanding relationship of the parties.”
Nothing to Smile About
The jury sees everything that goes on in the courtroom, paying special attention to a defendant’s demeanor, experts said.
Throughout the trial, Fattah frequently smiled and chuckled, even as prosecutors lobbed allegations and pointed directly at the congressman and his co-defendants; according to Lindy, that’s something that could come back to haunt him.
“The jurors are taking it seriously,” Lindy said. “They’ve spent almost a month of their lives at someplace where they’d rather not be, and you’ve got some defendant there smirking?”
“My guess is that Fattah has ignored his lawyers’ advice to sit there and be poker-faced,” he added.
According to Lurie, a defendant’s ability to be perceived as a sympathetic character is more important than the content of his testimony.
“It’s important to be likable, or perhaps, not unlikable,” Lurie said.
Veteran Philadelphia defense lawyer Frank DeSimone said the makeup of the jury will pay a critical role in determining Fattah’s fate as well, especially if any of them are especially distrustful of politicians.
Here, DeSimone said, Fattah is a politician standing accused of misusing funds and taking bribes, plus, he did not testify.
“The jury is going to be instructed that you can’t hold that against him, but you wonder,” DeSimone said.
P.J. D’Annunzio can be contacted at 215-557-2315 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @PJDannunzioTLI.
P.J. D’Annunzio, The Legal Intelligencer