New lawyers for an indicted congressman pledged not to delay his May trial if they lose the latest bid to have the racketeering case dismissed.
A team of prominent Philadelphia defense lawyers made their first court appearance Friday for U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, a veteran Democrat who parted ways with his previous lawyers after he stopped paying them. The new defense team is from a large firm that said it can finance the complex corruption case through trial.
Fattah, 59, is accused of accepting bribes and misusing campaign funds and charitable grants to enrich his family and friends. The indictment said he improperly steered federal funds to nonprofit groups run by former aides; promised an ambassadorship or other post to a friend who forgave a campaign loan; and steered campaign funds to the repayment of his son's college loans.
One of Fattah's new lawyers, Bruce Merenstein, said the team will be ready for a May 2 trial, if the case isn't thrown out.
The defense lawyers on Friday attacked the racketeering charge as unconstitutionally vague. Several co-defendants also sought to have charges dismissed on that and other grounds.
One former associate of Fattah's has pleaded guilty, and Fattah's son is serving a five-year prison term after his conviction in an intertwined tax- and bank-fraud case.
U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III did not immediately rule on the defense motions argued Friday, but he seemed to doubt that Fattah was protected under the Constitution's speech and debate clause, which grants lawmakers immunity for their legislative activities.
Fattah has called the long FBI probe a political witch hunt and has said he's spent $300,000 on related legal bills.
The 2015 indictment describes four schemes, two involving efforts to erase $1 million in debts from Fattah's failed 2007 bid for Philadelphia mayor. The indictment also charges four associates, including former staff members, with crimes and accuses Fattah's wife, a former TV anchor, of being linked to an $18,000 sham sale of a luxury car.
Fattah entered Congress in 1995 and rose to be the top Democrat on the powerful House Appropriations subcommittee. He has stepped down from that leadership post and faces several Democratic challengers as he runs for a 12th term in the April 26 primary.
Fattah has said he is focusing his fundraising efforts on his re-election and stopped after the morning court session to shake hands with a constituent at a nearby restaurant.