Real Estate Bribery Trial Of Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson Nears Verdict
Kenyatta Johnson could be days away from being the second member of Philadelphia City Council to be convicted of a federal crime.
Jury deliberations began on Thursday in the federal trial of Johnson, his wife, Dawn Chavous, and two former executives of a local nonprofit. At the heart of the trial is the former Royal Theater on South Street in Center City and a nearly $67K consulting gig Chavous had with the nonprofit, Universal Cos., which prosecutors claim was a "low-show" deal to gain favor with Johnson.
In 2014, Universal hired Chavous as a consultant for what it claimed to be help in navigating the world of charter schools, for which she is a longtime advocate, WHYY reports. At the same time, the nonprofit was seeking to maintain control of the parcel containing the former Royal Theater for the purpose of developing it into affordable housing.
That same year, Johnson introduced legislation rezoning the Royal Theater parcel to multifamily, which passed unanimously thanks to the Philadelphia City Council tradition of councilmanic prerogative. Universal later sold the property for $3.7M; its former CEO, Abdur Rahim Islam, and its former chief financial officer, Shahied Dawan, are also defendants in the trial.
After over two weeks of testimony, closing arguments were heard on Tuesday, with jury deliberations on Wednesday and Thursday failing to deliver a verdict, WHYY reports. U.S. District Judge Gerald A. McHugh dismissed the jury for the Good Friday holiday, meaning the earliest a verdict could be reached is Monday.
How the jury decides rests on two factors: whether Chavous did a significant amount of work for Universal in exchange for the $67K consulting fee and whether Johnson pushed through the zoning bill in response. Defense attorneys argued rezoning the parcel was motivated by the desire to create affordable housing in Johnson's district and not as a political favor.
A growing list of critics say that councilmanic prerogative is often used as a political tool by council members to wield power over land sales and development in their district. The process for disposition of city-owned land has been overhauled several times in the last few years in an attempt to speed the process and encourage the development of affordable housing, but the sale of city land ultimately needs to be approved through legislation, meaning it must pass the local council member's desk.
Johnson was raided by the FBI in 2016 amid a lawsuit from OCF Realty President Ori Feibush, who claimed Johnson refused to introduce the legislation required to complete a land sale that had already been approved by the Philadelphia Land Bank. Feibush won the suit, and subsequent attempts to appeal were unsuccessful, he confirmed to Bisnow.
In an unrelated case, Councilmember Bobby Henon resigned in January after being convicted of using his position to advance the interests of local union boss John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty. A special election is to be held on May 17, the same day as the state primary, to fill his seat.