Philadelphia City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson (Philadelphia Tribune photo).
The racist attempt to use the courts to remove duly qualified Black elected officials didn’t begin Jan. 29, 2020, with the selective indictment of Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson in Philadelphia. It began Sept. 12, 1868, with the removal of 33 Black state legislators — known as the “Original 33” — in Georgia.
Fortunately, just as the court system ultimately did the right thing by reinstating those Black Georgia legislators two years later in 1870, the courts — at least so far — did the right thing by refusing to convict the Black Philadelphia councilman, which led to a mistrial. More about that later in this article.
By the way, these racist attempts didn’t end in 1870. I’m sure you know about what the FBI tried to do to Mayor John Street by selectively bugging his office on Sept. 20, 2003, and what a suburban county district attorney actually did by selectively charging Kathleen Kane — a white former state Attorney General (and a pro-Black ally) — who had refused to selectively prosecute local Black elected officials.
“Kansas City, Mo. Mayor Emanuel Cleaver … fears that he will be investigated by the federal government. ‘I’ve done nothing wrong [he strenuously asserts]. But from what I’ve heard and seen, that really doesn’t matter. Some of my colleagues say I can expect to be investigated at least once during my term in office, even if there is no probable cause. It appears that selective prosecution is the order of the day at the Department of Justice …. [I must make it clear that] no one is saying that Black leaders involved in criminal activity should not be prosecuted. But many of my colleagues are being targeted and harassed by federal investigators without probable cause. And even if they are later cleared, word of the probe has been leaked to the media and the damage has been done.’”
An example of what Cleaver described as harassment is what happened in 1991 when state prosecutors waited until a public meeting of the National Conference of Black Mayors was being held in Cleveland and then — during the middle of that meeting — embarrassed that city’s mayor by ostentatiously serving a subpoena on him regarding a real estate transaction that had occurred eight years prior.
In that same ABA Journal article, the director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York City stated: “It appears that Black leaders are being investigated more frequently than their white counterparts simply because of their race, and that’s not fair and it’s certainly not constitutional.”
The article continued by noting the following:
1. “A 1990 study by the National Council of Churches shows that more than 14% of the public corruption cases over the past five years targeted Black officials who make up less than 2% of the country’s elected officials.”
2. “More than half of the 24 members of the Congressional Black Caucus [in 1990] report being targeted for investigation or subjected to harassment by federal investigators.”
3. Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree pointed out that ‘There is a legitimate and strong and growing perception in the Black community that Black leaders are being targeted.”
4. “In 1990, 77% of Blacks responding to a poll conducted by The New York Times said they believed that ‘the government deliberately singles out and investigates Black elected … officials in order to discredit them in a way it doesn’t do with white officials.”
5. “Hirsch Friedman, a white Atlanta lawyer and one-time informant for the FBI for several years, stated by affidavit that there was an unofficial policy within the bureau to bring down powerful Blacks.” As an aside, Friedman mentioned that, despite the absence of probable cause, the FBI had previously assigned him to investigate Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson and Atlanta Police Chief Eldrin Bell.
But the most shocking assertion in the affidavit submitted by Friedman was that he “was made aware of an unofficial policy of the FBI, which was generally referred to as ‘Fruehmenschen’ [which is German for ‘primitive men’].” The purpose of that policy, said Friedman, “was the routine investigation without probable cause of prominent elected … Black officials in major metropolitan areas.”
Fast forward to just a few days ago on April 19 when, immediately following the declaration of Johnson’s federal jury mistrial, Johnson’s attorney, Patrick Egan, stated,
“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. We believe that won’t change because there is no evidence because our clients [i.e., the Councilman and his wife Dawn Chavous] did nothing wrong.”
Egan’s right. In fact, anyone who closely followed the case from the very beginning knows he’s right. Allow me to explain.
In a news conference held by federal prosecutors Jan. 29, 2020, here’s what they said:
“As alleged in the indictment, Universal Companies … constituted a ‘RICO’ enterprise, ‘hijacked’ by the defendants [Abdur Rahim] Islam and [Shahied] Dawan to engage in a pattern of criminal activity [pertaining to a real estate transaction] that spanned two states for several years. In pursuing their criminal objectives, Islam and Dawan [of Universal Companies] ‘bribed’ public officials, including Johnson, with Universal’s funds, and hid those bribes as consulting fees paid through Chavous’ consulting firm. These charges are based on a pattern of activity which violates multiple federal and state laws including mail fraud … wire fraud, obstruction of justice, bribery, and use of an interstate facility in aid of racketeering.”
Wow! RICO — as in Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations like Al Capone’s gang or Pablo Escobar’s cartel? Hijacked — as in a gunpoint takeover? Bribed — as in passing a dirty brown paper bag full of $100 bills in a smoked-filled room?
Despite that hyperbolic indictment and news conference, federal prosecutors conceded — during their closing argument on April 12, 2022, following a lengthy three-week trial with nearly 20 witnesses — that they had no hard evidence of guilt in the form of video tapes, audio tapes, eyewitnesses, ear witnesses, or confessions. In other words, they couldn’t carry their constitutional burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, Johnson, Chavous, and the others are not guilty.
By the way, what’s up with the sexist and racist assumption/allegation that Chavous — a well-educated Black businesswoman — didn’t own a successful and legitimate consulting firm that could charge fees similar to what white guys charge at their successful and legitimate consulting firms?
When racist selective prosecution of Black elected officials began 154 years ago in 1868, it was wrong. And when it continued nonstop all the way up to April 12, it was wrong. And it’s still wrong today. And it’ll still be wrong tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, next decade, and forever.
So stop it. Stop it now.
Opinion contributor Michael Coard is an attorney and radio host. His work appears on Tuesdays on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. He wrote this piece for the Philadelphia Tribune, where it first appeared.
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