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Judge declares mistrial in federal bribery trial of Philly Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson

By: - April 20, 2022 9:54 am

Philadelphia City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson (Philadelphia Tribune photo).

By Stephen Williams

Patrick Egan, attorney for City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, said Tuesday after the federal judge in the case declared a mistrial, that the bribery trial came down to one issue: a lack of evidence.

U.S. District Judge Gerald McHugh declared a mistrial in the federal bribery trial of Johnson and his wife Dawn Chavous, a business consultant, after the jury said three different times that it could not reach a verdict. The couple was charged with two counts of honest services wire fraud.

“You have failed to reach a verdict, but you have not failed,” McHugh told jurors.

The jury deliberated for 25 hours.

“First and foremost I want to thank my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,” Johnson said after court. “I want to thank all of my family, friends and supporters for praying for us and showing your support during this very stressful time. I will continue my job of fighting for the residents of the 2nd Councilmanic District.”

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“The issue in this case was there was no evidence in our view. Fortunately some of the jurors obviously saw it that way as well,” Egan said outside the courthouse. “We believe that won’t change because there is no evidence because our clients did nothing wrong. Hopefully, justice will prevail and this case will go away as it should.”

Their co-defendants — former Universal Companies CEO Abdur Rahim Islam and former Universal Companies CFO Shahied Dawan — were also part of the mistrial and charged with two counts of honest services wire fraud. They were accused of making the bribe. Universal is a non-profit and charter school operator.

All of the defendants pleaded not guilty and none of them took the witness stand.

News reports said that a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said it is committed to retrying all four defendants on the bribery charges.

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Observers of the case called it a circumstantial one that came down to whether or not the jury believed that  Chavous, had a legitimate consultant contract with Universal Companies or that it was a bribe to entice her husband, Johnson, to do two official acts for the company.

South Philadelphia-based Universal is headed by Kenneth Gamble, the well-known songwriter and co-founder of the iconic Philadelphia International Records that created a string of hits by The O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass and McFadden and Whitehead in the 1970s and 1980s.

In its closing arguments, the prosecution agreed with the defense that they had no smoking gun, no emails, no wiretaps and no person who said the contract amounted to a bribe.

From the beginning, the defense said there were several problems with the case. One is Gamble and Universal are already politically savvy and well-connected and didn’t need to bribe anyone.

Another thing the defense said was that Johnson was already a friend of Universal whose ideas on neighborhood development and independent charter schools were very similar to his own.

Johnson, 48, represents the 2nd District, which includes parts of Center City, South and Southwest Philadelphia, including the port, the airport and the Navy Yard. He is a three-term Council member and former state representative.

A former prosecutor, who is now a defense attorney said on background that these types of cases are difficult for both sides.

For example, the federal government has unlimited investigative resources and experts in the form of the FBI. But for a defense lawyer, you must rely on whatever investigative resource or experts your client is paying for out-of-pocket.

Stephen Williams is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.

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