Developer gets 30 mos. for mail fraud, conspiracy

Posted: September 10, 2009

A multimillionaire developer who gave City Councilman Jack Kelly's former chief of staff a rent-free apartment and free legal services in exchange for help on issues affecting his businesses was sentenced yesterday to 30 months in federal prison.

U.S. District Judge Eduardo C. Robreno gave the developer, Ravinder Chawla, 59, of Abington, 45 days to surrender to the Bureau of Prisons and fined him $25,000.

Chawla remains free on $200,000 secured bail until then, but his attorney, Thomas Bergstrom, said he plans to ask that Chawla be permitted to remain free on bail while his conviction is appealed.

After sentencing, U.S. Attorney Michael L. Levy said, "We think Judge Robreno got it right. It doesn't matter whether you are paying the bribe or taking it, you are still cheating the public, and a prison sentence is appropriate."

A jury in February convicted Kelly's aide, Christopher Wright; Chawla, and Chawla's general counsel, Andy Teitelman, of conspiracy and mail-fraud charges.

Chawla also was convicted of a single wire-fraud count in connection with an e-mail he sent to Wright in November 2006 offering to hire him as a consultant on a development project in the city. Wright, who did not take the offer, was sentenced last month to four years in prison. Teitelman is awaiting sentencing.

Chawla had sought Wright's assistance on real-estate, zoning and tax matters affecting Chawla's his businesses.

Kelly, who was not charged, secretly recorded for the FBI a telephone conversation with Wright and a meeting he had with Chawla. The tapes were played at the trial.

Several Chawla family members and friends testified yesterday to Chawla's generosity and civic works.

Chawla, who was born in Burma - now Myanmar, Southeast Asia - and then went to India as a young boy to live with family before immigrating to the U.S., told Robreno how he had met the late Mother Teresa there and volunteered to do work for her charity.

"I learned you could be spiritual and at the same time be ambitious," he said.

But Chawla also admitted that the benefits that he provided Wright had taught him a "terrible lesson" and that he had "violated the law."

Robreno said that Chawla was "contrite" and had a record of success in business and helping those less fortunate than himself.

But the judge said that that record had to be weighed against his crimes.

When public officials are corrupted, the judge said, "it breeds apathy, cynicism and distrust" in the public and is "most pernicious" in local government.

The judge said that the "essential lesson" is that developers doing business in the city who are caught "lining the pockets" of public officials will go to jail.

Authorities valued the rent-free apartment and free legal services at $20,000.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Bresnick said that Chawla wanted Wright to be his "personal public servant" at City Hall.

He argued for a guideline sentence of 51 to 63 months, saying that Chawla's remorse was insincere.

Bresnick pointed to a nonprofit organization that Chawla formed to feed the needy that was registered with the state on Aug. 13, three days after Wright was sentenced.

Chawla's attorney said that the nonprofit - People Engaging and Caring for Everyone, or PEACE - had been in the works for several years.

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