As the trial of City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson continues, the paper trail linking him, and all of his co-defendants took center stage.
By Denise Clay-Murray
In the criminal justice system,the road to a decision of guilt or innocence is paved with lots and lots of paper.
As the trial of City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson continued at the James A. Byrd Courthouse on Market Street, the federal government laid out what it hopes will be a paper trail that leads to the conviction of Johnson, his wife, consultant Dawn Chavous, former Universal Companies CEO Rahim Islam and CFO Shahied Dawan.
Johnson has been accused of using his office to help protect a group of dilapidated South Philadelphia properties including the former Royal Theater site that were owned by Universal Companies — a non-profit formed by R&B legend Kenny Gamble — from being reclaimed by the City’s Redevelopment Authority.
In exchange, Islam and Dewan allegedly gave the councilmember a $66,750 bribe in the form of a “low-show” contract for Chavous.
Dewan and Islam are also accused of a variety of crimes including racketeering and embezzlement as part of the case. Right now, the jury made up of nine men and three women is deciding the bribery charges alone.
As of press time, FBI Special Agent Richard Haag was about to enter his fifth day on the witness stand in the trial, which is expected to take three weeks. Last Friday, Haag, the lead agent on the case, began his testimony by describing the process of the investigation, which included interviews with 150 witnesses, Grand Jury subpoenas, surveillance, and search warrants, Haag said.
With the help of Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Dubnoff, Haag took the jury and those in the gallery down the paper trail of bank records, invoices, credit card bills, Universal board meeting minutes, and other documents.
Among the documents presented to the jury were a series of invoices presented by Chavous to Universal for her services. Beginning in 2013, Chavous was contracted to provide such services as connecting Universal to wealthy potential benefactors for the company’s charter schools, advocating for those schools with elected officials and planning events that would attract people who needed to learn about Universal’s mission.
But what Universal in general, and Islam and Dewan in particular, were actually paying for was access to her husband, the government alleges, and that was borne out by the amount of work that they say she actually did, Haag said.
“When I went through the records, I found that she had actually done less than 40 hours of work during that contract,” he said.
Despite cash flow problems that were causing Universal to implement layoffs, Chavous was kept on as a consultant as part of the bribery plot, the government alleges. In addition, Haag introduced documents that the government believes show that Islam and Dewan took more than $463,000 in illegal bonuses, a charge both men deny.
The jury was also given some insight into Johnson and Chavous’s finances. Several large credit card bills from American Express, Wells Fargo and Barclay’s totaling $43,794.20 were introduced into evidence, in addition to paperwork showing two mortgages and a car with a $646 a month payment.
Much of this case has centered on the Royal Theater in South Philadelphia and what happened when Universal attempted to develop it after buying it for $300,000 in 2000.
Tamilia Hinson-Threadgill, the current COO of Universal Community Homes and Gamble’s stepdaughter, was the prosecution’s first witness. She talked about the organization’s intentions for the theater, which was a place where Blacks would go and see such entertainers as Billie Holliday and Cab Calloway. It closed in 1970 and fell into disrepair.
But while Gamble wanted to restore the building to what it was, the Royal, to paraphrase one of the R&B legend’s hits, wanted more than he could give, Hinson-Threadgill said.
“The original vision was to make it the R&B Hall of Fame,” she said of the Royal, which is on the National Registry of Historic Places. “We hoped to attract different artists to come in and perform and restore it to its old glory. But with its size and its structural condition, we didn’t have the money to redevelop it.”
Because of its blighted condition, neighbors complained about it. A group of them filed a complaint under Act 135, which allows the Redevelopment Authority to reclaim blighted land.
To try and avoid this, Universal reached out to developer Carl Dranoff for help. As a neighbor himself, he had a personal interest in the project, but the zoning for the building made fixing it up difficult.
It wasn’t a project with a high enough rate of return for Dranoff, but Ori Feibush, another South Philadelphia-based developer wanted the building. The only problem was, he and Universal didn’t see eye to eye.
But Dranoff was an optimist.
“There was no love lost with Universal,” he said of the organization’s relationship with Feibush. “But I’m not sure that they were mortal enemies. My mission was to get the property developed with whomever would help me. I don’t always agree with [Feibush] but I was willing to listen.”
The trial is expected to last three weeks but could go longer. Testimony continues on Monday.