PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A veteran congressman's son awaiting trial over $200,000 in bank loans that fueled his image as a self-proclaimed "entrepreneur, socialite (and) lifestyle mogul" calls himself collateral damage in the Justice Department's long-running probe of his father.
The FBI believes Chaka Fattah Jr. misspent loans and some of the nearly $1 million in federal education funds he snagged — despite never finishing college — as a 27-year-old school management subcontractor living in a $600,000 Ritz-Carlton condo, spending lavishly on cars for himself and his girlfriend and racking up $33,000 in casino gambling debts.
And when tax time came around, authorities said, he was lax about filing returns annually and instead filed a batch of them in late 2010. IRS agents, finding the returns suspect, raided his luxe bachelor pad a year later. In a 38-page trial memo last month, prosecutors said Fattah's companies were merely a shell for business loans he spent on "extravagant personal living expenses."
But rather than cower in the midst of FBI stings that have netted his college roommate and two advisers to his father — U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah Sr. — the younger Fattah has instead fought back, acting as his own lawyer.
Some question that confidence in the face of a sweeping federal indictment. But "Chip" Fattah, now 31, scored an early victory this month when a U.S. appeals court agreed to delay the case and review one of his countless legal challenges.
"If I was still represented by counsel, then the trial would have started two weeks ago," the younger Fattah said.
As he spoke, he was working on a 55,000-word legal brief due Tuesday in the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.
"The government has no idea what they're talking about in terms of most of the trial memo. Just in terms of details. Details that turn innocent conduct into criminal conduct," said the son, who insists he worked long hours for two years on the education contract.
Chip Fattah — reed-thin and always smiling — can talk a blue streak. But he paused, atypically, when asked how long he had lived with his father, a 10-term Philadelphia Democrat, before his parents divorced. His sister, Fran, is a lawyer running for city judge. Fattah Sr., 58, also has two young daughters with his third wife, local TV anchor Renee Chenault-Fattah.
"I've grown up at my mom's house. But my dad's always around. I've spent summers and stuff in D.C.," he said.
Fattah studied business at Drexel University, but never earned a degree, citing financial difficulties and a college debt he says has grown to $120,000. (An entry on his LinkedIn page listed a B.S. degree, though he calls that "a mistake.")
He did an internship at Comcast Corp., then went out on his own, starting ventures such as "Fattahgraphy," whose clients included statehouse Democrats and the congressional Black Caucus, and "American Royalty," a concierge service that promised to secure restaurant reservations, event tickets and prestige credit cards. At least four clients complain they were stiffed after paying him a $10,000 fee to help obtain high-end American Express cards.
His father's former aide, Gregory Naylor, admitted in an August felony plea that he steered $22,000 in illegal campaign donations toward the student loan debt of an unidentified congressman's son. Chip Fattah told The Associated Press that he did campaign work for Naylor to earn the money. The scheme is not part of his 23-count indictment.
And it's not clear how much grist his case will yield prosecutors pursuing his father. Both Fattahs have called the investigations political.
The same Justice Department lawyers, Paul Grey and Eric Gibson, are working both cases. In thinly disguised arguments involving a "Congressman Smith," the Justice Department recently asked a federal appeals court to compel Google to release seven years of the congressman's private emails.
Fattah lawyer Luther Weaver III is fighting the subpoena, which a district judge had approved. He called his client a "subject" of the investigation but not a "target" — someone warned of a looming indictment.
"I think the government looks at me as collateral damage in their overzealous attempt to embarrass people," Chip Fattah said Thursday. "I've done nothing wrong."
The damage extends to his Drexel roommate, Matthew Amato, a partner in the early ventures who took out three fraudulent 2005 bank loans.
Amato has agreed to testify against the younger Fattah while Naylor and perhaps the congressman's former campaign consultant, Tom Lindenfeld — who admitted in a plea he helped route an illegal $1 million loan through his consulting firm to help pay off the 10-term Democrat's debt from a failed 2007 mayoral bid — may be doing the same.
Amato, Naylor and Lindenfeld, set to be sentenced this month, all have new court dates the week of July 13 so they can help with ongoing investigations, prosecutors said in seeking the delays.
"Having been through that process for the last few years, it's not surprising that somebody would plead guilty," the younger Fattah said of their convictions. "I think the government will do anything to get somebody like me that has a famous name."