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Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson
Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson's trial on federal bribery charges stem from 2013 and 2014. Photo: Jared Piper/PHL Council

Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson’s bribery trial begins

The trial also involves his wife, Dawn Chavous, and charges were announced back in 2020.

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For the next three or four weeks, a member of Philadelphia City Council will be back in the limelight again for all the wrong reasons.

Philadelphia City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, representing District 2, and his wife, Dawn Chavous, a political consultant, nonprofit leader and lobbyist, will go to trial this week facing 22 charges in a federal bribery case that was unveiled in 2020.

The charges stem from 2013 and 2014, when Johnson — then newly-elected to City Council — used his position, according to prosecutors, to protect the real estate holdings of Universal Companies, a South Philly community development center and charter school nonprofit.

In an alleged exchange for the protection of the holdings, the nonprofit bribed Johnson with a “low-show” consulting gig for his wife worth more than $66,750.

To be more specific, prosecutors are looking into Johnson’s vote to grant Universal’s sale of a historic South Philly site for 15 times what it originally paid after a zoning change, and another instance where Johnson used his councilmanic prerogative to keep a property in the hands of the nonprofit after not developing it for eight years.

Councilmanic prerogative is the much-maligned unwritten power of City Council members to have the final say on nearly all land decisions in their districts. Some proponents argue for its ability to equal the development playing field, but others see it as ripe for unethical practices as councilmembers rule their districts like a fiefdom.

Since the charges were unveiled two years ago, Johnson and Chavous have maintained their innocence. 

“We are very pleased to finally get our day in court and have the truth come out before the public, which will show that the councilman did nothing wrong," Patrick Egan, Johnson's attorney, told Axios.

His federal trial is also the second in less than a year for the legislative body. Back in November 2021, former Councilmember Bobby Henon was convicted of federal corruption charges alongside longtime IBEW Local 98 leader John ‘Johnny Doc’ Dougherty. After initially saying he would stay in his seat until sentencing — now set for April — Henon resigned before the first full council meeting in 2022.

As for Johnson, he will maintain his official duties as the trial progresses, and whether or not he participates in legislative sessions will depend on the trial’s schedule.

Should he and Chavous be found guilty, both are expected to appeal.

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