Kenyatta Johnson Indicted Over Alleged Abuse of Councilmanic Prerogative

(Photo: Philadelphia Inquirer)

Fresh off his third victory in a contested primary, 2nd District Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson was indicted Wednesday morning at a press conference at the U.S Attorney's office, according to reporting by Chris Brennan and Jeremy Roebuck.

The allegations concern Johnson's use of his zoning power under Councilmanic Prerogative, and a consulting contract paid to his spouse, Dawn Chavous, by a property owner who benefitted from Johnson's official actions. Prosecutors say this amounted to a bribe essentially. Read the Inquirer's explainer for the full context, but this the relevant piece concerning Johnson, from Chris Brennan and Jeremy Roebuck's article:

Efforts to sell went nowhere due to potential buyers’ doubts about the economic viability of developing the site under its zoning restrictions at the time. The building’s condition grew so bad that in 2013, a neighbor filed to strip Universal of its ownership under Pennsylvania’s Blighted and Abandoned Property Conservatorship Law.

In response, the nonprofit abruptly changed course. It hired Chavous as a consultant to its charter school operations, and turned to Johnson for help getting the Royal site rezoned for mixed-use development featuring apartments and retail space.

Prosecutors said Wednesday that Chavous did next to nothing for the money Universal paid her under her consulting contract before Johnson’s rezoning ordinance was passed.

According to the indictment, “Chavous’ consulting business provided the vehicle to disguise bribe payments to her husband.”

Just to be clear, the fact of the indictment doesn't automatically mean that Councilmember Johnson, his wife Dawn Chavous, or anyone else involved is guilty. As we've seen with Bobby Henon, the indictment is only the beginning of a long process that could play out over years, and Johnson, like Henon, maintains he and Chavous are innocent and has pledged to fight the charges. Brennan and Roebuck note the City has so far spent around $189,000 so far on Johnson's legal bills. That would end if he is charged.

Without speculating about the details at all, the general theme of Johnson sometimes using his zoning powers to reward friends and punish enemies is a pretty well-established storyline by now, and was the main knock on him by rivals in his last two reelection campaigns, so a zoning-related scandal would not seem far-fetched to anybody. It's unfortunate that even though a lot of the worst stuff has been sitting there in plain sight for a long time, the Inquirer still endorsed Johnson for reelection despite some throat-clearing about the corruption issues. In hindsight, it's a pretty bad look for them with the indictment coming so soon after the endorsement, since we're almost certain to see a hoary finger-wagging op-ed from the Ed Board within a few days.

It's important to point out too that Johnson is not unique in sometimes misusing Councilmanic Prerogative—the larger issue is that the institution of Councilmanic Prerogative itself is bad and encourages a kind of low-grade legal political corruption even under the best of circumstances. It can easily veer into illegal territory though, and it's no coincidence that the last two Councilmembers to go to prison got tripped up over Councilmanic Prerogative-related offenses

One interesting thing to watch in the event that Johnson does leave office early is whether he'll be allowed to hand-pick his replacement via his role as 36th Ward leader. The 36th Ward is the largest of the wards in the 2nd District, and that matters because when the ward leaders choose a special election nominee for an opening, their votes are weighted based on how many divisions (precincts) they have in the relevant District. So Johnson could hypothetically find himself in a position where he's been removed from office for criminal activity, but the rules of the Philadelphia Democratic Party would still allow him to be the dominant player in choosing his own replacement. 

We'll have more updates on this post as the situation progresses.

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  • Chris Randolph
    commented 2020-01-31 13:10:24 -0500
    How does one “abuse” councilmanic perogative? It is abuse. The whole system is one of graft and all 10 district council members engage in it as a definitional portion of the job. All of them should be locked up or none; my preference is all.
  • Ron Hansen
    commented 2020-01-29 11:11:28 -0500
    at least there are no bay windows in prison for him to worry about…