Ex-Phila. Council aide gets 4 years The judge kept close to guidelines for Christopher Wright, saying a message was needed on corruption.

Posted: August 11, 2009

Christopher Wright, who served two Republican members of City Council over a 20-year career in city government, was sentenced yesterday to four years in prison for favors he accepted from developers while he promoted their interests in City Hall.

U.S. District Judge Eduardo C. Robreno said the need to deter public corruption demanded "substantial" prison time for Wright - and declined to drastically depart from sentencing guidelines, as was done in the case of former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo.

"It is clear from the trial . . . that the defendant placed the interests of his benefactors first," and those of all others second, Robreno said.

Wright, who was Councilman Jack Kelly's chief of staff until shortly after his indictment in August 2008 and who also worked for longtime Councilman W. Thacher Longstreth, was convicted in February of conspiracy and fraud for accepting a rent-free apartment from the developer Ravinder Chawla and free legal services from Chawla's lawyer, Andrew Teitelman, in exchange for intervening on their behalf with city government on a number of fronts.

Just before Robreno imposed the sentence, Wright, 45, apologized for his acts.

"I regret that some of my actions have caused some of my friendships to be brought into question," he said.

After the hearing, Wright declined to comment. His lawyer, Lisa Mathewson, said that she was disappointed in the sentence, but that a decision to appeal would be up to Wright.

No comparisons

Robreno rejected comparisons to the 55-month sentence that U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter gave Fumo last month.

Federal prosecutors had wanted a prison sentence of 6 1/2 years for Wright, and described Fumo's sentence as a "travesty" before amending their petition to remove that language.

Fumo was convicted of 137 counts of conspiracy and fraud, while Wright was convicted on 3 of conspiracy and fraud. Wright's financial benefit was placed at $23,000, while Fumo's was put at no less than $2.3 million.

Robreno said this case was distinct from the cases of two former city officials convicted of corruption, City Treasurer Corey Kemp (who got 10 years) and Councilman Rick Mariano (6 1/2 years), except for the need for deterrence.

"This case has opened a window into how wealthy and well-heeled individuals" can gain access to the decision-making process in City Hall, Robreno said.

"Some may say, after all, this is the Philadelphia way, the way things get done in this town," said Robreno. A stern sentence would send the message that such a conclusion would be wrong, he added.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Bresnick agreed and urged Robreno to hand Wright a stiff sentence.

'Like cancer'

"Corruption is like cancer," he said. "It enters the public body and spreads throughout, unless and until action is taken."

Wright told Robreno yesterday that personal problems and alcoholism clouded his judgment: He was dealing with the October 2005 death of his mother, and a bitter divorce and custody battle over his two young children that resulted in financial fallout.

In December 2005, Wright accepted a $1,000 check from Hardeep Chawla, Ravinder Chawla's brother and business partner. Six months later, Ravinder Chawla and Teitelman helped Wright get free an apartment that normally rented for $1,200 to $1,500 a month. Teitelman, whom Wright described as his best friend, then assisted Wright with legal help.

In the meantime, Wright was working with the Chawlas and Teitelman to straighten out back taxes and utility bills, and keep track of legislation that could threaten their ambitious River City project in Center City along the Schuylkill.

Teitelman and Ravinder Chawla are scheduled for sentencing in September for their roles. Hardeep Chawla was acquitted of all charges.

At his trial, Wright said that he was only doing what his boss, Kelly, wanted him to.

Kelly testified that this was true, though he acknowledged that Wright's use of the apartment could present a conflict of interest. Kelly was originally targeted by the FBI based on allegations that never panned out.

Yesterday, Kelly issued a statement saying that he was "a bit surprised" at the length of the sentence.

"I am certain that Judge Robreno systematically examined all aspects involved in the case, and made a good-faith effort while rendering a sentence," Kelly said in the statement. "However, given other recent federal decisions in somewhat similar instances, I am a bit disappointed in the harshness of the judge's assessment. I wish Chris well in whatever lies ahead for him, and hope that once his sentence is completed, he can rebuild his life."

A presentencing report prepared by a U.S. probation officer recommended a sentence of 27 to 33 months, but Robreno ruled that sentencing guidelines called for a 55-month sentence.

The judge, who acknowledged the possibility that Wright was "a good man" who had done bad things, sentenced Wright to 48 months in prison, followed by two years' supervised release, and a $1,000 fine.

Wright's family - his 81-year-old father, James, and three siblings who attended the proceedings - seemed crushed by the sentence.

Many of them, including Wright's girlfriend, Beth Haber, wept on several occasions, particularly when Wright's sister, Terry Forrester, described how her brother was "in a bad way" when their mother died in October 2005.

After the verdict, brother Mark directed his ire at the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Calls it 'a sham'

"This was a sham," Mark Wright said. "Those prosecutors should be ashamed of themselves - they're soulless.

"My brother doesn't have remorse, because he's innocent," Mark Wright said. "The toughest thing in the world to watch is your loved one go to prison, when you know in your heart he's innocent."

In a handwritten letter to the judge, James Wright asked Robreno to show mercy and "allow an old man to live the rest of his life in peace."

A total of 29 letters were submitted on Wright's behalf.

Supporters included State Rep. John Taylor; Republican ward leaders Bill Pettigrew, Walter Vogler Jr., and Kevin Pasquay; and Republican City Commissioner Joseph J. Duda.

Two dozen supporters attended the hearing, including former Republican mayoral candidate Al Taubenberger and Pasquay, both of whom testified to Wright's good character yesterday.

Robreno acknowledged that Wright had "touched a number of lives in a positive way," but added that tough prison sentences are "the best antidote for public corruption."

Under federal rules allowing up to 15 percent time off for good behavior, Wright could be out of prison in about 3 1/2 years.

Robreno ordered Wright, who is free on bond, to surrender to authorities by Sept. 24.

Contact staff writer Jeff Shields at 215-854-4565 or jshields@phillynews.com.

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