Take Two: The second trial of City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson began on Friday. This should be interesting.

Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson

I generally don’t get to write a column while news is going on in real time, but as I write this on a Friday morning, I’m in federal court for the second go-round of U.S. vs. Islam, et al.

Now you’ll look at that sentence and probably have no idea what it is I’m talking about. You won’t know this case by what the federal government has called it because we here in the media and around the city have been referring to it by another name: the Councilman Kenyatta Johnson trial.

(Because let’s be honest. No one knows who Islam and Dewan are unless you live in certain sections of South Philadelphia or are attuned to Universal Companies. But we all know who the City Councilpersons here in Philly are.)

Anyway, the reason why I’m here is because when this trial was first conducted back in March, the jury couldn’t come to a decision and mistrial was declared. So, I’m back here.

I guess I should tell you why this trial is going on in the first place and why it has anything to do with what we do at Hall Monitor.

At the center of this case, at least to me, is a little thing called Councilmanic Prerogative. The U.S. Attorney’s office is saying that in exchange for a no-show job for Chavous — and the $67,000 in cash that they alleged came with it — Johnson used his councilmanic prerogative to help Universal, a company created by Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Kenny Gamble, hang on to the Royal Theater through a zoning change that would allow the company to sell it to cover some serious cash flow problems.

Meanwhile, the USAG asserts, one of the reasons that Universal was having such issues with cash flow was because Islam and Dewan were using the company’s money for such things as high-end travel, bonuses they didn’t deserve, and expanding the company’s charter school empire — an empire that’s had its share of issues here in Philadelphia of late — to Milwaukee. Those schools have since closed.

(Here’s where I need to say that Gamble is not on trial. I should also say that this is the first trial I’ve ever covered where a judge has had to rule that the song “For The Love Of Money”, a classic written by Gamble for the O’Jays, is inadmissible as part of the prosecution’s case because it’s seen as prejudicial.)

So for the next month, a jury of eight women, four men, and five alternates, me, and by extension, you, are going to be hearing about spot zoning, zoning variances, bribery, a married couple and their finances, the process of the Historical commission, why we’re having so many problems with affordable housing here, and a whole lot of other things that give you more insight than you ever thought you needed about the development process here in Philadelphia. There’s even going to be a Brian Abernathy sighting because he’s the former head of the Redevelopment Authority.

(Hopefully, he won’t start yelling at me when he sees me. I kinda gave him a hard way to go in the early days of the COVID pandemic, which got me yelled at on all the local newscasts. I won’t say what my response to that was because this is a family newsletter.)

It’s a lot of paper. A lot of checks, contracts, and stuff that could make your eyes glaze over if it’s not presented correctly. Which brings me back to why I’m spending my Friday morning in a federal courtroom.

When I cover a trial, I pay attention to everything. I pay attention to the prosecutors. I pay attention to the defendants. I pay attention to the judge and witnesses.

But I REALLY pay attention to the jury. They’re the most important part of the process. Without them, justice doesn’t get served.

During the last trial, the government believed, to quote that noble legal scholar, Beyonce’, “Your best revenge is your paper.” Unfortunately, it was too much paper and not enough people. I was always taught that the best way to tell a story is to let the people involved do it for you. The government didn’t do that, and it cost them.

As someone who has got to not only sit through this, but also has to transmit it to you, I hope they use more people.

I’ll be here every day for the next month, so expect updates not only in this space, but also on Hall Monitor, Wednesdays at 6pm on WPPM and at PhillyCam.org.

Our reporters sit through hours of city council meetings, dig through piles of documents, and ask tough questions other media overlook. Because we’re committed to addressing Philadelphia’s poverty crisis — and challenging those who sustain it. If you think this work is important too, please support our journalism.

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