Two months before Rep. Chaka Fattah's bid for an 11th term in Congress, a longtime aide and friend admitted conspiring to misuse federal, charitable, and campaign funds to repay loans for Fattah's losing mayoral campaign and his son's college tuition. Accused in the plea of initiating the schemes, Fattah took days to defend himself and longer to produce more than a terse, generic denial. Even now, rather than address the details of the allegations, the Philadelphia Democrat prefers to draw attention to his achievements in Congress, the excesses of federal authorities, and the presumption of innocence.
Fattah is certainly entitled to be considered not guilty until proven otherwise. Innocence of criminal wrongdoing, however, is not tantamount to fitness for office.
The lack of formal charges against Fattah - the recent plea doesn't even identify him by name - puts voters in an awkward position, though. They must choose between an accomplished congressman under the shadow of an investigation and his promising but novice Republican opponent, Philadelphia schoolteacher Armond James.
Fattah, 57, has won 10 terms and been repeatedly endorsed by The Inquirer, and not just because his Second District, spanning parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery County, is inhospitable to Republicans. The ranking Democrat on a House Appropriations subcommittee, Fattah has been an effective advocate for neuroscience funding, access to education, mortgage assistance, and green energy.
Many of Fattah's achievements, for example in facilitating higher education, have been enabled by his influence over appropriations and his willingness to direct money to a network of nonprofits. But the same groups have come under scrutiny for generous salaries and other dubious expenses, up to and including some of the misappropriations admitted by his former aide.
Newcomer James, 33, who has made a point of spending time in some of the district's rougher neighborhoods, advocates more support for vocational alternatives to college as well as corporate tax reform to improve employment. If elected, he would have a long way to go to match Fattah's record of service. Given the serious allegations against the congressman, however, and his unpersuasive response to those charges, ARMOND JAMES is more deserving of voters' support.