Fattah sentence raises fairness question

December 14, 2016 GMT

Former Congressman Chaka Fattah was sentenced Monday to a 10-year prison term for racketeering conspiracy involving misuse of public, charitable and campaign funds to pay personal and political debts.

Before his sentencing, Fattah told the judge he had mixed emotions: saddened to find himself in court but grateful for the work he was able to do over 37 years as a state and federal lawmaker.

Fattah summed up the mixed emotions of many of his supporters.

“I’ve helped tens of millions of people,” said Fattah, 60. “[That] has nothing to do with the fact that I’ve been found on the wrong side of these questions by a jury.”

There is no question that Fattah helped many people.

Born into a family of African-American activists in West Philadelphia, Fattah spent decades in Congress and the Pennsylvania legislature working on housing, education, gun control and other issues of concern to his mostly poor district.

There is no question that Fattah did wrong.

He and his longtime TV anchor wife, Renee Chenault-Fattah, was once one of the city’s most admired power couples. Together they reportedly made an estimated $500,000 a year.

Yet after a failed 2007 run for mayor of Philadelphia, Fattah faced new campaign spending limits that led him to take an illegal $1 million loan from a friend.

Fattah lost the spring primary days before trial and resigned his seat following his June conviction. The jury found he took the $1 million loan from the chairman of Sallie Mae, the student loan corporation. He returned $400,000 of it and repaid some of the rest with federal grant money he had steered to an education nonprofit run by former aides. Fattah was also ordered Monday to repay $600,000 in restitution along with his four co-defendants.

“For someone so interested in advancing education for the disadvantaged, you had the temerity to steal from the Educational Advancement Alliance, a nonprofit supported by government funds,” said U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle. “While you have done much good, you also engaged in grave and widespread criminal activity.”

Some supporters question if Fattah received a fair sentence.

Fattah received one of the longest prison sentences for any member of Congress ever, reported the Washington Post.

“It may not surprise you to hear there are literally dozens of members of Congress who have been convicted of crimes, either while in office or after,” said the Post.

“Some have paid fines, or served probation or resigned from their jobs. But among those who have gone to prison, most have been sentenced to two or three years. Very few have received a sentence as long as the one former representative Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) just received …”

The Post added: “We believe the only other member of Congress to be sentenced to more time in prison than Fattah is former congressman William Jefferson who received 13 years for being engaged in ‘the most extensive and pervasive pattern of corruption in the history of Congress,’ federal prosecutors said at the time.”

Fattah’s sentence is the second longest of the nine congressmen convicted of corruption since 2000.

Judge Bartle is sending a strong message by ordering a 10-year sentence for Fattah. However, giving Fattah one of the highest known sentences for a congressman raises the question on whether the sentence was too harsh and unfair.