Kenyatta Johnson returns to City Council one day after federal indictment

Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson at City Council.
Photo credit Pat Loeb/KYW Newsradio
PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Thursday's Philadelphia City Council meeting had an extra element of drama when Kenyatta Johnson arrived one day after federal charges against him were announced. Johnson is forcefully declaring his innocence.

"I have done nothing wrong and everything you read in the indictment is alleged, it is not facts," he said.

Johnson has been outspoken in denying the charge that he used his position to help Universal Companies with real estate matters in exchange for a bribe, paid through a consulting contract with his wife. 

But there are two things he doesn't dispute: He did take actions that helped Universal and his wife did have a consulting contract with them. 

Johnson doesn't see a conflict, nor does Council President Darrell Clarke.

"It's not up to me to second guess any decision a councilmember makes," Clarke said. 

"I know it has put some of my colleagues who are doing great work in this body in general in a precarious situation," Johnson said. 

And yet, Johnson defended his role as chairman of the Rules Committee, which hears the very kind of zoning matters at the heart of the indictment.

"I've always worked in decency, transparency and so I will continue working in that same manner as rules chair," he declared. 

@CouncilmemberKJ⁩ takes his seat in ⁦@PHLCouncil⁩ caucus, 1day after federal indictment pic.twitter.com/wl91hCdvCD

— Pat Loeb (@PatLoeb) January 30, 2020

Clarke, too, defended Johnson's appointment to the committee and assigning chairmanship of the Licenses and Inspections committee to Bobby Henon, who's also been indicted for, among other things, allegedly using L&I improperly.

"That committee gets no more votes than any other committee member. You get one vote. There must be an extremely transparent process which we do have here in City Council," Clarke said. 

Clarke adds he doesn't think having two indicted members takes away from the achievements Council has had on issues such as housing and workers rights.

But Pat Christmas of the watchdog group Committee of 70 says councilmembers should be aware of the appearance of a conflict, especially around the issue of councilmanic prerogative, which allows district councilmembers like Johnson to decide, virtually unilaterally, about land use matters.

"Residents deserve absolute certainty that someone's personal interest is not being put in front of the public interest. One bad decision or one suspect decision can cast a cloud over the hundreds of good decisions and good bits of work that are taking place," Christmas said.

Christmas says Council has made progress with a bill last session reforming the land disposition process.