Mistrial declared in South Philly Councilman’s bribery case

Photo/Mark Zimmaro

A mistrial was declared in a federal bribery case against South Philadelphia City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson and his wife Dawn Chavous.

A jury of eight men and four women could not reach a verdict after three weeks of testimony and four days of deliberations as federal prosecutors attempted to prove that Johnson and his wife accepted more than $66,000 in exchange for Johnson using his public office to take official actions to benefit the CEO of Universal Community Homes, Abdur Rahim Islam, and its CFO, Shahied Dawan. Universal Community Homes is a subsidiary of Universal Companies, which is a nonprofit that owns several charter schools in South, West and North Philadelphia.

Had they been convicted, Johnson and Chavous were facing 40 years in prison.

“We are gratified that some of the jurors appear to recognize the government did not introduce a single piece of hard evidence that either the Councilmember or Ms. Chavous did something wrong – not a single email, text, memo, taped call or witness detailing the bribery the government alleges occurred,” said Johnson’s attorney Patrick J. Egan in a statement. “The government was unable to introduce any because, despite investigating Councilmember Johnson and Ms. Chavous for six years and conducting more than 150 interviews, bringing three dozen people before the grand jury and collecting and analyzing more than two million documents, there is no evidence and both are innocent of the government’s charges.”

At the time of his indictment in January, 2020, Johnson, who represents the city’s  had maintained his innocence and called the federal prosecutors “overzealous.”

According to the indictment, the charges stem from criminal schemes orchestrated by Islam and Dawan through Universal Companies that included thousands of dollars in bribe payments to public officials and the misappropriation of hundreds of thousands of dollars from Universal.

Prosecutors argued that Chavous, who operates Chavous Consulting, used her business to to receive payments from Islam and Dawan for her husband. Universal owned the property on which the closed Royal Theater sits, on the 1500 block of South Street and needed to be rezoned.

“The government’s entire case relies on the opinion of a single agent who has never served as a consultant and has no training in organizational management and has never worked with or for charter schools,” Egan said in the statement. “Even the government concedes Ms. Chavous did work but in one agent’s opinion, she didn’t work enough. That runs directly counter to the testimony of people who worked with and for Ms. Chavous.

“In the coming weeks, we will have more to say about the facts of this case and why it never should have been brought in the first place. We hope that the government recognizes the weakness of its case, declines to retry either the Councilmember or Ms. Chavous, and permits them to move on and rebuild their lives and reputations.”