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Appeals court overturns ex Rep. Chaka Fattah's bribery convictions, upholds guilty verdict on other counts

Jeremy Roebuck, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

PHILADELPHIA -- A federal appeals court in Philadelphia on Thursday overturned former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah's bribery conviction in a decision that offered a small measure of vindication for the ex-congressman -- but may not dramatically affect the decadelong sentence he received for other corruption-related crimes.

The ruling by a three-judge panel on the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals held that jurors in Fattah's case had not been properly instructed on the legal definition of "political graft" -- one narrowed by a U.S. Supreme Court opinion issued just days after they convicted Fattah, a Democrat, in 2016.

Still, wrote Chief Circuit Judge D. Brooks Smith: "There is more than sufficient -- and distinct -- evidence to support Fattah's conviction on all of the other counts" including allegations that he stole federal grant funds, charitable donations and campaign cash to pay off his personal and political debts.

It was not immediately clear whether prosecutors would seek to retry Fattah and Herbert Vederman, the congressman's wealthy benefactor whose bribery convictions the 3rd Circuit also overturned Thursday.

A spokesperson for U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain said his office was still reviewing the appeals court's conclusions. Fattah's lawyers declined to comment.

In it 142-page opinion, the 3rd Circuit said it relied heavily on McDonnell v. The United States -- a 2016 Supreme Court decision that raised the bar for prosecutors bringing political bribery cases and has toppled a number of high-profile corruption convictions in the two years since.

In that case, former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, a Republican, had been accused of accepting more than $165,000 in purported bribes from the owner of a dietary supplement company in return for pushing state universities to conduct research studies that would help the supplement company win FDA approval.

But the Supreme Court 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. McDonnell's actions, the court ruled, although unseemly, did not constitute an official act in his role as governor.

In Fattah's case, Vederman, a former Philadelphia deputy mayor, showered the congressman 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 Poconos vacation home.

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In exchange, Fattah gave Vederman's girlfriend a job in his district office and lobbied other government officials -- including President Barack Obama and Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., D-Pa. -- in hopes of landing Vederman a job as an ambassador.

In the appeals' court decision, Brooks wrote that even under the new McDonnell standards at least one of Fattah's actions -- hiring Vederman's girlfriend -- would clearly support a bribery conviction.

But since it was not clear whether the jurors reached their guilty verdict based on that -- or the meetings and phone calls Fattah made to get Vederman a posting abroad, the convictions must be overturned, Brooks wrote.

Fattah, 61, is serving a 10-year sentence at a federal detention center in McKean County, Pa. Vederman had been sentenced to two years in prison, but a federal judge in 2016 allowed him to postpone his incarceration while he appealed his case.

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