Attorney in Kenyatta Johnson case accuses U.S. Attorney of ‘conflict of interest’

By: - February 17, 2020 2:34 pm

By John N. Mitchell

The attorney for Kenyatta Johnson is accusing a prosecutor of a conflict of interest in the corruption case against the South Philadelphia city councilman.

Patrick Egan, who represents Johnson, 46, said that William McSwain, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, did the right thing when he recused himself from the trial of Johnson and his wife, Dawn Chavous, 40. McSwain recused himself because he was once a partner at the law firm of Feagre Drinker Biddle & Reath, where Chavous’ attorney, Barry Gross, is a partner.

However, Egan said that McSwain “crossed a line” on Wednesday when he talked about Johnson’s legal issues in front of more than 500 attendees at the Union League’s annual Lincoln Day celebration.

“When he talks about the case publicly, it gives the impression that he has some knowledge that he does not, which is unfair to our client,” Egan said. “This undercuts the presumption of innocence. It is improper for him to be commenting. He implied that somehow the mayor should take some action against my client, who is innocent and presumed innocent as well.”

Egan contended that McSwain should be precluded from publicly commenting on the case in any circumstances.

He also said McSwain’s comments indicate McSwain has “made himself more familiar with the case” than someone who is following ethical standards should be.

“If he is following ethical standards, then he has no more knowledge of those charges than the general public,” Egan said.

A spokesperson for McSwain scoffed at Egan’s claims.

“This is a frivolous assertion by Mr. Egan, and he knows better. The U.S. Attorney’s comments at the Union League only briefly touched on the publicly known facts — that there are two sitting members of the Philadelphia City Council who are currently under indictment and that they have both been appointed to committee leadership positions within that body,” the spokesperson said. “Further, U.S. Attorney McSwain emphasized that both of those members are entitled to their day in court.”

Johnson, a three-term councilman, and Chavous are accused of accepting more than $66,750 in bribes in 2013 and 2014 from former Universal Companies executives Abdur Rahim Islam and Shahied Dawan. Universal Companies is the South Philadelphia community development charity and charter school operator founded by music legend Kenny Gamble. If found guilty of the charges, Johnson and Chavous face a maximum of 40 years in prison and $500,000 in fines.

When the charges first were announced in January, McSwain did not speak at the reading of the indictment. Rather, he sat silently in the front row as First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams fielded media questions related to the case. No trial date has been set.

McSwain was the keynote speaker at the Union League’s Lincoln Day celebration. During his address, McSwain was critical of Johnson, a Democrat, being named as the leader of City Council’s Committee on Rules. He was also critical of Councilman Bobby Henon, a Democrat also under federal indictment, being named chairman of City Council’s Committee on Licenses and Inspections.

A Republican, McSwain criticized Mayor Jim Kenney and Council President Darrell Clarke, both Democrats, for allowing Johnson and Henon to remain on City Council.

John N. Mitchell is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared. 

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