Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the fraud judgement against Lavern Chatman as a criminal conviction. It was a judgement in a civil lawsuit.
A spokeswoman for Oprah Winfrey said Wednesday that Winfrey had been unaware of a court judgement of fraud against a friend who is running for a Virginia Congressional seat, but added that the 2001 judgement would not impact the talk-show magnate’s plans to attend a fundraiser for the candidate in April.
Lavern Chatman, one of 11 hopefuls competing for the Democratic nomination to succeed U.S. Rep. James P. Moran (D) in Virginia’s 8th Congressional District, is the former head of the Northern Virginia Urban League.
Her announcement on Tuesday that Winfrey would host a fundraiser for her in Arlington County was overshadowed by revelations that Chatman was found liable for her role in a scheme to defraud hundreds of District nursing home employees of at least $1.4 million in owed wages.
“Ms. Winfrey is attending to support her friend,” Winfrey spokeswoman Nicole Nichols said of the April 5 event in Arlington. “Ms. Winfrey was not aware of the charge.”
According to court documents, Chatman helped an owner of the company that managed the nursing home hide his assets in order to avoid paying court-ordered damages.
Chatman has maintained her innocence, saying that she was duped into offering loans to someone she thought was a friend. A D.C. Superior Court judge found her claims to be “patently incredible.”
In a statement issued Tuesday, Chatman said: “During the worst year of my life, this is one instance of bad judgment, not an example of any bad intentions. I did not stand to benefit and I did not know about [the nursing home owner’s] scheme, but I was forced to pay for his mistakes since he was insolvent at the time.”
The judgment against Chatman was first reported by the political blog Blue Virginia.
It’s unusual for a celebrity as well known as Winfrey to get involved in a crowded congressional primary race such as the one underway in the 8th, especially because it is far from Chicago, Winfrey’s home turf. Winfrey’s endorsement of then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2008 was credited with giving his presidential primary campaign a major boost.
Winfrey and Chatman have been close for years, according to Chatman’s campaign.
“Oprah is a good friend, and we both share a passion for empowering women and girls for leadership,” Chatman said in a statement. “I’m delighted she is coming to town to help with my congressional campaign.”
The Democratic primary is June 10.
Chatman’s involvement in the claims of 297 employees of the District-based J.B. Johnson Nursing Home began when she agreed to offer financial assistance to Roy Littlejohn, the owner of the company that managed the home, according to court records.
At the time, Littlejohn had been implicated in a class-action civil suit brought by the employees and faced a judgment of more than $1.4 million. According to the records, Chatman paid $26,500 for assets from Littlejohn — including two cars — an apparent effort to protect the assets from the court judgment.
The employees filed a second suit naming Chatman as a defendant, and she lost the suit in 2001. The D.C. Court of Appeals upheld the decision in 2003, noting in its opinion what the lower court had found: “The court explicitly rejected appellant’s testimony, finding it to be ‘patently incredible.’ It further found that ‘the papers drawn up by the parties were entirely bogus, and that anyone with Ms. Chatman’s background and sophistication knew it.’ The court was therefore satisfied that ‘the plaintiffs have demonstrated by the preponderance of the evidence that the two were engaged in a civil conspiracy to defraud.’ ”
Virginia’s 8th Congressional District is generally considered one of the safest Democratic seats in the country. Moran has held the seat since 1990. Chatman, who said she has raised $200,000, placed second in a recent Mount Vernon Democrats Mardi Gras poll. The winner was former Virginia lieutenant governor Don Beyer.
Other Democrats running are state Del. Patrick A. Hope (Arlington); state Sen. Adam P. Ebbin (Alexandria); Del. Charniele L. Herring (Alexandria); Del. Alfonso H. Lopez (Arlington); Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille; radio talk-show host Mark Levine; Virginia Tech professor Derek Hyra; Navy veteran and former Moran challenger Bruce Shuttleworth; and Arlington resident Nancy Najarian.
Republicans will nominate their candidate at a convention on April 26. Micah Edmond, an aerospace lobbyist, and Paul Haring, a former Texas state representative, have declared their interest.
Jennifer Jenkins and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.