Criminal charges against City Council member Kenyatta Johnson have been laid out by federal prosecutors in Philadelphia. The charges include his wife, political consultant Dawn Chavous.
This comes as a result after a five-year-long investigation. Now, 22 count indictment alleges a tangled quid pro quo that involves the council member, his wife's consulting firm and Universal Companies. The companies are a prominent nonprofit developer and charter-school operator founded by music producer Kenny Gamble. The founder was not charged.
Now, the couple each face two charges of fraud. This sentences carry a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison and up to $500,000 fines, and still includes other penalties.
Prosecutors affirm that Universal offered Chavous. The amount, said to be more than $66,000 in consulting work, is in return for her husband's help in preserving the nonprofit's ownership over several pieces of real estate, all valuable. One of these properties include the historic Royal Theater which was later sold to pay off Universal's debts.
Chavous used the money to pay for her and Johnson's mortgage, loan, and credit bard debts. This piece of vital information is part of the court documents which were unsealed this Wednesday.
Aside from Chavous and Johnson, the indictment also includes former Universal CEO Abdur Rahim Islam and Shahied Dawan, the CFO of Universal. Islam and Dawan have been charged with racketeering, fraud and other counts that charge them for stealing $463,000 through fraudulent bonuses. The two of them are set to surrender this week.
Jennifer Williams, First Assistant U.S. Attorney, summarized the case, proclaiming "In essence, this indictment charges that Universal Companies was hijacked by Islam and Dawan, and turned into a criminal enterprise."
The indictment ties Chavous and Johnson to a project that plaans to expand Universal's charter school operations to the city of Milwaukee. Former Milwaukee Public Schools Board President Michael Bonds was actually convicted May 2019 for charges of taking $18,000 in bribes from Universal executives for work on the expansion.
The Wednesday's indictment includes details of Universal paying Chavous to influence Johnson to use his office to boost the value of the nonprofit's South Philadelphia real estate holdings. These holdings were later sold to pay off debts related to the expansion.
Christian Zajac, Assistant Special Agent in charge of the FBI in Philadelphia stated "We have three people pretending their motives were civic-minded when in fact, they were conspiring to enrich themselves."
In 2013, Universal posted a $200,00 loss related to the project. Dawan advised Islam that the nonprofit sell the asset to cover this loss. Now, the former Royal Theater was purchased by the organization for redevelopment back in 2000. The historic building fell into disrepair and faced a takeover threat via a conservator-ship petition which was filed by a local developer. The petition is a legal mechanism that allows interested groups to takeover the properties through court order.
However, in 2014, Johnson introduced a zoning bill that alters the parking requirements and height maximums for the property. This act forced the withdrawal of the petition. That was when the nonprofit sold the theater for $3.7 million. Ori Feibush, Johnson's former rival for the Second District seat, bought the building and is now redeveloping it into apartments.
The indictment covers another plan involving Johnson that was intended to preserve Universal's control of other properties on the 1300 block of Bainbridge Street. Universal bought the properties for a redevelopment plan that never materialized. Nine years of vacancy triggered a reversion clause to clawback the land. Once again, Chavous and Johnson intervened for Universal's best interest.
The indictment states Chavous warning the company about the reversion plan, to which the company paid the consultant $18,000 that month. Johnson said he would not support the reversion. While his approval was not legally required, the prosecutors described his actions as an exercise in "council manic prerogative." This is an informal form of control over many major land-use decisions.
Williams stated "Johnson never made an attempt to recuse himself from these matters even though his wife was on the Universal payroll. They profited greatly from these properties, thanks to Johnson's efforts."
Johnson and Chavous have repeatedly said they will plead not guilty. Johnson issued a statement this Tuesday, claiming himself "a victim of overzealous prosecutors." He is adamant on not resigning from his post over criminal charges.In his letter to his constituents, Johnson stated "I will keep fighting for you regardless of what happens with this federal case. I will not let it stop me from keeping up the fight for our community and advancing our shared agenda."
Chavous believes her name will be cleared, painting herself a victim, expressing through a written statement that "To have your work, ethics and integrity challenged is devastating. I'm confident when this is over, the facts will reveal that I have done nothing wrong and my name and my family's name will be cleared so we can put this behind us."
Just weeks into Johnson's third term in office representing South Philadelphia's 2nd District, the indictment was laid.
Dawan and Islam, facing charges from stealing $463,000 disguised as bonuses or per diems, now face a statutory maximum of 285 to 300 years in prison and $4 million in fines.
U.S. Attorney William McSwain recused himself from this prosecution, his former law partner is now representing one of the defendants.