A federal judge warned U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah to rethink his priorities on Tuesday after the congressman said he was more concerned about raising money for his re-election than his upcoming racketeering trial.
Fattah's defense team asked to be released from the case because the four lawyers weren't being paid. The complex fraud trial is set for trial on May 2. Fattah, an 11-term Democrat, is accused of accepting bribes and misusing nonprofit funds and government grants.
"You need to take this matter seriously and think long and hard about your priorities," U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III told Fattah.
Noting his $174,000 congressional salary, the judge said Fattah was hardly "a pauper" who could get a public defender.
Fattah said he has spent more than $300,000 during the nearly nine-year FBI investigation, including $100,000 on his current lawyers, who came on board after the July indictment. But he complained the government has spent millions pursuing him.
Fattah, 59, said he hopes to retain a larger firm that can accept delayed payments.
"As I stand here, I'm innocent," Fattah said. "I'm not seeking any delay. ... But I have to get past a couple challenges, including my re-election."
Bartle did not immediately rule on the motion for new lawyers.
"It's a little like holding (the defense lawyers) and the court hostage," Bartle said. "I have no control over when this hypothetical new attorney would show up."
The defense lawyers offered to stay on for another week or two until Fattah retained someone else. They said they had prepped the case for trial and thought another firm could step right in — the 900,000 pages of government evidence notwithstanding.
Asked about his real estate holdings, Fattah told the judge he co-owns a vacation home in the Poconos, but said his TV-anchor wife has sole ownership of their family home. He said his wife, Renee Chenault-Fattah, who is on leave from NBC10, owned the home before they married.
A somewhat related case last year ensnared the congressman's son, Chaka Fattah Jr., who was convicted of bank and tax fraud but calls himself "collateral damage" in the FBI's probe of his father.
As a Democrat in a safely Democratic district, Fattah has not had to stockpile cash to fight off primary opponents in the past, but several Democrats are challenging him this year. Campaign finance reports show that he has taken in just $13,500 since the July indictment, compared to the $69,000 and $72,000 in the previous two quarters.
It was not immediately clear how much he had in any separate legal defense funds. A spokeswoman did not immediately return a message. Federal lawmakers can use campaign funds for legal bills as long as the allegations stem from their campaign or their official duties.
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"It's difficult to understand why his legal bills should be paid with other peoples' money," Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric L. Gibson argued Tuesday.
But Fattah said the Justice Department was also funded by other people.
"I'm not the first elected official to have a legal fund. I'm sorry he has a problem with that," Fattah said.