PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah was sentenced Monday to a 10-year prison term by a judge who said he was “astonished” that a veteran legislator would steal government and charity funds to pay his son’s debts and buy a vacation home.
Fattah, a Democrat who was born into a family of black activists in Philadelphia, spent two decades in Congress working on housing, education, gun control and other issues of concern to his mostly poor district. Fattah and his TV anchor wife meanwhile took in more than $500,000 a year.
Yet Fattah’s finances grew increasingly dire after a failed 2007 run for mayor, when he faced new campaign spending limits that led him to take an illegal $1 million loan from a friend. The trouble escalated when the friend called in the debt.
As he awaited his sentence, Fattah told the judge he had mixed emotions: saddened to find himself in court but grateful for the work he was able to do over 37 years as a state and federal lawmaker.
“I’ve helped tens of millions of people,” said Fattah, 60. “(That) has nothing to do with the fact that I’ve been found on the wrong side of these questions by a jury.”
Fattah lost the spring primary days before trial and resigned his seat following his June conviction. The jury found he took the $1 million loan from the chairman of Sallie Mae, the student loan corporation. He returned $400,000 of it and repaid some of the rest with federal grant money he had steered to an education nonprofit run by former aides.
Fattah was also ordered Monday to repay $600,000 to Sallie Mae and NASA.
“For someone so interested in advancing education for the disadvantaged, you had the temerity to steal from the Educational Advancement Alliance, a nonprofit supported by government funds,” U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle said. “While you have done much good, you also engaged in grave and widespread criminal activity.”
Fattah used the money on campaign and personal expenses, the jury found. He put $23,000 in nonprofit funds toward his son’s college loans and took an $18,000 bribe to try to help a friend become an ambassador. Fattah and his wife used that money for a down payment on a Poconos vacation home. They told authorities it covered the friend’s purchase of a Porsche owned by Fattah’s wife, but the Porsche never left their garage.
Fattah had insisted the Department of Justice had been out to get him and his family for years. He plans to appeal the conviction.
The congressman’s son is serving a five-year prison term in an overlapping fraud case that went to trial last year. Chaka “Chip” Fattah Jr. was convicted of using fraudulently obtained business loans to fund his jet-set lifestyle.
The elder Fattah, who earned $174,000 a year as a congressman, is married to longtime Philadelphia news anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah. They have two school-age children. Chenault-Fattah spent 25 years with WCAU-TV before she resigned after the indictment named her a participant in the bribery scheme. She was never charged and has denied wrongdoing.