‘I am innocent’: Philly Councilman Kenyatta Johnson pledges to fight bribery charges

City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, center, addresses questions related to federal indictment brought against him and his wife, Dawn Chavous, on Wednesday (Photo via The Philadelphia Tribune)

By John N. Mitchell

PHILADELPHIA — Federal prosecutors on Wednesday brought criminal charges against Philadelphia City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and his wife, political consultant Dawn Chavous.

The two were named as defendants along with two former executives with non-profit Universal Charter in a 22-count indictment that accuses Johnson of taking bribes and using his office to benefit Universal and his wife.

Johnson, 46, and Chavous, 40, face a maximum of 40 years behind bars and $500,000 in fines.

“These charges are based on a pattern of activity which violates multiple federal and state laws including mail fraud, honest services mail fraud, hones services wire fraud, wire fraud, obstruction of justice, bribery and use of an interstate facility in the aid of racketeering,” said Assistant United States Attorney Jennifer A. Williams during a Wednesday morning press conference.

Later in the day, at a rally that was part revival and part campaign stump, Johnson vowed to fight the charges.

“For the record, I am innocent – I look forward to fighting this case and clearing my name, Johnson said inside a recreation center located in the 2300 block of Wharton Street. “I ask you to rap your arms around me and my family with prayers, and I’m not resigning for the record. I will be pleading not-guilty, and I will aggressively continue advocating and fighting for the people in the Second District.”

All of the defendants are scheduled to surrender later this week, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Universal Companies, which was founded by entertainment legend Kenny Gamble, was not charged in the indictment.

At the heart of the charges are allegations that Abdur Rahim Islam, 62, formerly Universal Community Homes chief executive officer and board president, and Shahied Dawan, 68, former chief financial officer and secretary of Universal’s board, bribed public officials, including Johnson, with Universal’s funds, and hid those bribes as consulting fees paid through Chavous’ consulting firm, Chavous Consulting, LLC.

The indictment says Chavous performed very little work on the contract. Prosecutors on Wednesday declined to comment on the nature of her work.

The indictment charges Islam and Dawan of funneling payments in excess of $66,000 through Chavous’ company to the couple in exchange for Johnson using his office to take official actions for Universal’s benefit.

The indictment also alleges that Islam and Dawan raided Universal’s funds for approximately $463,000. It says the two used the money to pay for trips, personal car insurance, vacations and and gym memberships under the guise of expenses related to operating Universal Companies.

The indictment ties the defendants to failed attempt to expand Universal’s charter school operations into Milwaukee. Former Milwaukee Public Schools Board President Michael Bonds was convicted last May for taking $18,000 in Bribes from Universal executives on the expansion.

“What we have here is four people pretending their motives were purely civic-minded, when, in fact, they were unlawfully conspiring to enrich themselves,” said Christian D. Zajac, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Philadelphia Division. “Abdur Rahim Islam and Shahied Dawan stole nearly half a million dollars from Universal – money for themselves, and to use as bribes to further their financial pursuits.

“Councilman Kenyatta Johnson accepted their payoffs and based his official actions on those bribes, with Dawn Chavous providing him cover,” added Zajac.

Chavous did not attend the the afternoon press conference with her husband because Johnson said “she was working.”

Johnson’s attorney, Patrick J. Egan, called the case against his client weak.

“I think that anybody who looks at this indictment and looks at the facts and what is alleged in comparison to a lot of other cases that have been brought over he years will notice there is a lot lacking in this indictment,” Egan said. “We will bring witnesses to this trial that will prove that there is nothing wrong here, that there was no quid pro quo, and that the councilman is innocent.”

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