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Corruption Charges Could Cost Congressman Chaka Fattah 12th Term

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Chaka Fattah, the Pennsylvania congressman, has coasted to victory for more than two decades. But now he's in the fight of his life politically. In the aftermath of federal corruption charges, three Democrats have challenged him in next week's primary. From member station WHYY in Philadelphia, Aaron Moselle reports.

AARON MOSELLE, BYLINE: In late July, federal prosecutors released a 29-count indictment against Fattah and four associates. The dizzying 85-page document accuses Fattah of misusing hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, grant money and charitable donations. He's charged with racketeering, bribery, wire fraud and other offences for allegedly using the cash to fuel personal and political gains - serious stuff that could net the 11-term lawmaker serious jail time if he's convicted. Though, you wouldn't know it listening to him.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: How are you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Good to see you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All right, same here, man.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good to see you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Good to see you again.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All right, Congressman, you have five minutes.

MOSELLE: At a recent candidates forum in North Philadelphia, Fattah is all smiles while addressing a small group seated in tidy rows of brown foldout chairs.

CHAKA FATTAH: It's great to see the support that's coming forward. We're going to have a big victory on April 26, but it's really much more important that we continue to partner and work together.

MOSELLE: Fattah's confidence is two-fold. For starters, he says the charges against him are frivolous and that federal prosecutors will have a hard time proving them.

FATTAH: The problem for those who are trying to pull it off is that you're not writing on or painting on a blank canvas. I have a very good reputation.

MOSELLE: Fattah says voters care more about what he's accomplished in the district than yet to be proven allegations.

FATTAH: There are tens of thousands of families who have benefited from my mortgage foreclosure relief effort. There are tens of thousands of senior citizens who benefitted from work I've done that provide support services for seniors. There are young people and their families who benefited through my work in education.

MOSELLE: Longtime Germantown resident Greg Paulmier agrees. Fattah has delivered for the district. He says he's concerned about the indictment, but he's willing to suspend judgment for now. There's just too much political capital on the line.

GREG PAULMIER: He's got seniority. He takes up a seat on the appropriations committee, which is a difficult seat to get, especially in a Republican-controlled Congress. So we don't want to give up that seat unless we absolutely must and we hope that we don't have to go there.

MOSELLE: Political consultant Mark Nevins says Fattah's name recognition with voters is also helpful.

MARK NEVINS: If they're not paying attention to what's in the news media, which is his hope, then they'll go to the polls on Election Day and they'll say, oh, Congressman Fattah, I always vote for him. And they'll vote for him again.

MOSELLE: But Merion resident Rich Watman says the indictment will cost Fattah his vote.

RICH WATMAN: Every politician who gets in trouble like this, the first thing they do is say, you know, people are out to get me. Well, I just believe that there's got to be some truth to it somewhere or else the allegations wouldn't have been made.

MOSELLE: Narberth resident Larry Marshall is a bit more blunt.

LARRY MARSHALL: He was a loser before. He's a loser now. So would I support him? No.

MOSELLE: Fattah won't likely need Marshall's vote to win. Ninety percent of registered voters in the district live in Philadelphia. And because roughly 80 percent of voters are Democrats, winning next week would effectively ensure Fattah a 12th term, depending on what happens at trial. Jury selection isn't scheduled to start until six days after the primary. For NPR News, I'm Aaron Moselle in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.