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Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson is headed back to trial this week.
Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson is headed back to trial this week. Photo: Jared Piper/PHLCouncil

Philly Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson set for Bribery retrial this week

A judge declared a mistrial this past April after the jury could not come to a decision.

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Philadelphia Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson is set to return to federal court this week for a retrial on the bribery charges brought against him at the end of January 2020. In the initial trial this past April, the jury could not come to a decision after over 25 hours in deliberation. 

U.S. District Judge Gerald A. McHugh declared a mistrial, and it prompted him to announce a second trial. A guilty verdict this round would mean prison time for Johnson and his three other co-defendants, which includes his wife, as well as the end of his political career. 

“I’m expecting almost exactly the same trial,” Johnson’s lawyer Patrick Egan told WHYY. 

The 48-year old lawmaker’s future is once again in the hands of the jury, which is expected to hear the same case that was presented the first time back in April. The prosecution is not expected to present any new evidence and the witnesses are also expected to not change, according to court documents. 

“The government’s theory doesn’t make sense, and they have no evidence that my client did anything wrong. So, I’m hopeful that we will get a not guilty. And he can move on with his life and go back to serving the citizens of Philadelphia,” Egan said. 

The bribery case is focused on Johnson, his wife Dawn Chavous, as well former nonprofit executives, Abdur Rahim Islam, who served as CEO, and Shahied Dawan, who served as CFO. 

The allegations are that of a supposed quid pro quo scheme in which the councilmember accepted over $67,000 in bribes for political favors that benefited Universal Companies, a charter school operator and developer co-founded by Kenny Gamble, a Philly music legend. 

That money was allegedly then funneled through his wife’s company, Chavous Consulting, per their fraudulent contract agreed upon back in 2013. According to the government, Chavous did not do enough work for the nonprofit to prove otherwise. 

The prosecution alleges that the bribe money then made Johnson bring to council new zoning legislation that would allow Universal to keep control of a valuable property in Johnson’s 2nd District. This includes the Royal Theater located at the 1500 block of South Street, what was

then a failing business that Universal was in danger of losing as a result of a conservatorship petition that was filed in Pennsylvania state court. 

Johnson’s prospective legislation rezoned the Royal Theater, making it possible for Universal or another developer to bring an all purpose business to the site that would have ended the legal effort to separate Universal from the property itself. The legislation was introduced a little less than a week after Chavous had deposited her final Universal check. 

In under two years after the legislation passed in City Council, Universal had sold the Royal for more than 10 times what they paid for it — over $3.7 million. The alleged bribe money Johnson accepted also enabled him to use his political entitlement to stop Philly back in 2014 from getting land back that Universal owned on the 1300 block of Bainbridge Street. 

This, along with the city Housing Authority, was in violation of a 2005 agreement to build housing on the site. According to prosecutors, Johnson’s position created a “chilling effect” that enabled Universal to keep hold of the property. 

Jury selection is expected to start Wednesday, Sept. 28, with the trial expected to last over a month. 

Both Johnson and Chavous are facing over 40-year prison sentences if convicted.

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