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5:28 AM / Tuesday December 6, 2022

31 Oct 2022

The Waiting Game, Part II

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October 31, 2022 Category: Local Posted by:

As the jury in their retrial debates guilt or innocence, City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, his wife, and two former Universal Companies executives are awaiting the outcome.

By Denise Clay-Murray

As the third day of deliberations in the retrial of City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, his wife Dawn Chavous, and two former Universal Companies executives continued on Monday, the jury of eight women and four men had some questions it needed answered.

Judge Gerald McHugh brought the lawyers representing Johnson, Chavous, former Universal CEO Rahim Islam and former CFO Shahied Dewan into Courtroom 9-B of the James A. Byrd Federal Courthouse on Market Street to tell them what the jury needed as it continues deliberating the guilt or innocence of the defendants.

Closing arguments in the retrial concluded on Wednesday and the case was given to the jury on Thursday to deliberate. Their mission is to decide if Johnson sold his council office to help Universal protect a group of dilapidated South Philadelphia properties that it owned from being reclaimed by the City’s redevelopment authority.

In exchange for the protection, which included changing the zoning on the former Royal Theater and two other properties owned by Universal Companies — a non-profit owned by R&B legend Kenny Gamble — the government alleges that Islam and Dewan gave Johnson a $66,750 bribe in the form of a “low-show” contract for Chavous.

During closing arguments, Asst. U.S. Attorney Mark Dubnoff told the eight women and four men comprising the jury that defendants Islam and Dewan had driven Universal into a cash flow problem that could only be solved with the sale of the Royal Theater and properties on Bainbridge Street that Universal owned.

The intention of that sale, and of the bribery of Johnson through Chavous, was plain and simple greed. Even if Universal and Chavous had a contract, and she did do some work, it doesn’t matter because the idea behind giving her the contract was tainted, Dubnoff said.

“Even if the group had good intentions, they had mixed motives,” he said. “So, it’s bribery.”

Calling the group “criminals,” Dubnoff made the argument that no matter how the defense tried to excuse what they did, there was no excuse, and they should be found guilty.

Had that been what happened here, Dubnoff’s argument would make sense, said Patrick Egan, Johnson’s attorney, in his closing argument.

But that’s not what happened. And the government has presented no direct evidence otherwise, Egan said.

“Not all circumstantial evidence is credible,” he said.

Besides, why would Universal have to bribe someone who had already shown themselves to be in their corner, asked David Laigaie, attorney for Rahim Islam.

“Universal had no reason to bribe Johnson,” he said. “He had already shown himself to be a supporter of theirs.”

The corruption charges against Johnson, Chavous, Dewan and Islam are part of a 22-count indictment that was handed down in late 2020. The bulk of that indictment, which includes a variety of crimes including racketeering and embezzlement, is directed at Islam and Dewan. The jury of eight women and four men is expected to hear that case as well.

That is, if it doesn’t end up in a mistrial. In April, after three weeks of testimony and 25 hours of deliberations, a jury couldn’t agree on a verdict on the corruption charges. Once that happened, a new jury had to be empaneled to hear the case.

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