Philly City Council won’t abandon Kenyatta Johnson as he faces federal charges

City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who represents District 2, could face federal charges over links to a Universal Companies project (Photo via The Philadelphia Tribune, City of Philadelphia)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia City Council will not abandon Councilman Kenyatta Johnson as he becomes the second legislator facing federal corruption charges.

On Thursday council members either supported or evaded questions about Johnson as he faces a 22-count indictment accusing him of taking bribes and selling his office to benefit a Black-owned nonprofit who employed his wife, Dawn Chavous. Chavous also was indicted along with others.

Councilwoman Cherelle Parker called Johnson’s indictment “very unfortunate.”

“Just because he’s a member of this City Council doesn’t mean that he is excluded from his constitutional rights,” she said.

Members of council said they would continue to work with Johnson on legislative matters. No legislator called on the South Philadelphia politician to resign; most spoke in lockstep that he remains innocent until proven guilty.

At the first legislative session since his indictment,  Johnson maintained his innocence.

“I have done nothing wrong,” said Johnson, who represents South and Southwest Philadelphia.

While speaking during the session, Johnson also apologized to council members, acknowledging his indictment has “put some of my colleagues … in a precarious situation.” He will not step down from heading council’s Committee on Rules, which decides on matters relating to development and zoning, among other things.

The indictment against Johnson alleges he secured a rezoning ordinance for Universal Companies to redevelop the former Royal Theater on South Street in exchange for Universal hiring Chavous for a no-show consulting job to hide bribe payments to Johnson. Chavous has maintained her innocence.

“I’ve always worked in decency, transparency, and so, I will continue working in that same manner as the [Committee on] Rules chairman,” Johnson said.

Council President Darrell Clarke said he assigned committee leadership posts based on a legislator’s “willingness to serve and, two, their ability to serve.”

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to indict or cast a guilty verdict on an individual her serves in this body,” Clarke said.

Johnson is the second member of council fighting federal charges.

Councilman Bobby Henon was indicted last year on corruption charges alleging he sold his office to support International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 and its powerful boss, John Dougherty.

Both Johnson and Henon were reelected in November.

Councilwoman Jamie Gauthier said the pair of indictments will “undoubtedly” influence how voters perceive City Council.

“I don’t think it puts us in the best light, but, at the same time, these members deserve to have their cases play out in court,” she said.

“Obviously, it hurts the [City Council] body,” said Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez. “It brings undue attention on the body.”

The last time two council members were facing federal indictments at the same time was the Abscam scandal in the 1980s, which caught up three members of council, a U.S. senator, six congressmen, and the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, for taking bribes from undercover federal agents posing as Arab sheiks.

Councilman Brian O’Neill, the longest serving legislator this term, began his first term in 1980 shortly before the Abscam scandal broke. He did not believe the dual indictments would be a distraction for members of council.

“Your urgency is, Oh, we’ve got to do something,” O’Neill said reflecting on past scandals in City Council. “But there’s a rule of law and there’s a presumption of innocence and that’s the way we generally take it.”

In their own words …

The following are responses from each City Council person about Johnson’s indictment.

Councilman Curtis Jones said the indictment would not affect his working relationship with Johnson.

“Until justice is completed, not at all,” Jones said in response to being asked whether he would stop working with Johnson.

Jones evaded a question about how the indictments would affect the public’s perception of City Council : “I don’t have an answer to that.”

Councilwoman Katherine Gillmore Richardson said her “thoughts and prayers” were with Johnson, whom she has worked with for years dating back to his time as a state representative.

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

“And I think it’s important that we all understand that we are afforded the presumption of innocence until we have our day in court,” she said.

At-large Councilman Isaiah Thomas didn’t want to comment at all about Johnson’s indictment but noted that working with Johnson was not off the table.

“I’m not commenting on that,” Thomas said. “It’s not best right now. … I have no choice but to continue to work with him because that’s how we get stuff done for the citizens of Philadelphia.”

At-large Councilman Allan Domb said still had to “look at all the facts” before commenting. He would support Johnson’s legislation depending on whether “they were beneficial for the city currently and in the long term.”

At-large Councilwoman Kendra Brooks said she had “no comment.”

At-large Derek Green said that he “had a chance to read the indictment.”

At-large Helen Gym said said she had “no comments.” But regarding whether she will support Johnson’s future legislation, she said, “They’ll be judged on the merits.”

Councilwoman Cindy Bass said she was interested in learning more about the charges from Johnson and cautioning that, “We should all reserve judgement.”

“We’ve heard one side of the story; now we’ll hear another side,” Bass said. “I look forward to hearing the councilman’s response.

“I think Kenyatta Johnson has done a good job. He’s on his third term. He’s worked very hard and we hear his side of the story,” Bass added.

Henon, facing federal charges himself, said, “I fully believe in the presumption of innocence.”

Councilman David Oh said “allegations are made: they have to be proven.”

Councilman Mark Squilla said members of council had “serious concerns” about the Johnson’s indictment, but Johnson must have his day in court.

“We have to continue to work together until this is finalized,” he said.

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.