Brazen corruption and pettiness hurts the most vulnerable

Philadelphia Councilman Bobby Henon speaking at a Back the Blue rally at the FOP lodge in Northeast Philadelphia. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Philadelphia Councilman Bobby Henon speaking at a Back the Blue rally at the FOP lodge in Northeast Philadelphia. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

For years I’ve opposed the Kenney administration’s soda tax because studies showed such a tax would affect poor people of color disproportionately. But the words of a City Councilman recounted in a federal indictment released this week show that there was even more reason to fight the tax.

According to a 116-count federal indictment charging I.B.E.W. Local 98 Business Manager John Dougherty Philadelphia City Council Majority Leader Bobby Henon and others with corruption-related charges, the soda tax was not initially about decreasing soda consumption, funding Pre-K, or rebuilding recreation centers.

The tax, as described in text messages between Henon and Dougherty, was nothing more than a way to carry out a petty personal vendetta that began with a political commercial that Dougherty found insulting when it ran before the 2015 mayoral primaries.

“I just saw the Carpenters and Teamsters commercial with you in it,” Henon wrote in a May 2015 text message to Dougherty, according to the indictment. “I’m going to f*** them big time, just so you know…They see the polls and know that nothing will change the outcome. I’m just so mad but…I will be smart about it but there will be consequences.”

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According to the indictment, the men went on to discuss the soda tax as a means of getting back at the Teamsters, with Dougherty going so far as to tell Local 98 President Brian Burrows, “Let me tell you what Bobby Henon’s going to do, and he’s already talked to [elected local public official]. They’re going to start to put a tax on soda again and that will cost the Teamsters 100 jobs in Philly.”

I reached out to the Teamsters for comment. A message went unanswered by press time.

But if the charges are true, and Henon used his office to serve Dougherty rather than serving the people, it’s my view that Bobby Henon must resign, and Mayor Jim Kenney, whom Dougherty supported in his run for Philadelphia’s highest office, should be among those calling for Henon’s ouster.

Kenney hasn’t gone so far as to call for Henon’s resignation, but the mayor said that despite the allegations laid out in the indictment, Dougherty did not influence his administration’s decision to move forward with the soda tax.

In fact, mayoral spokesman Mike Dunn said the mayor had no idea that Dougherty and Henon planned to use the soda tax as a weapon to get back at the Teamsters. “That allegation in the indictment was certainly news to the Mayor,” Dunn told me in a statement. “He was not party to that conversation, and had no knowledge of it until the indictment was announced yesterday.”

Still, the indictment says there were other conversations between the Kenney administration and Dougherty as the idea of the soda tax moved forward. The indictment says the Kenney administration asked Henon to introduce the soda tax, and that as the process moved forward, a member of the Kenney administration sat down with Dougherty to try to explain to him how the tax could benefit the city.

“You don’t have to explain to me,” Dougherty said, according to the indictment.  “I don’t give a f***. Listen, my goal is to make sure you are alright, that’s all.”

And therein lies the problem. Dougherty apparently didn’t care if anyone was helped by the soda tax. He only cared about guarding his allies and hurting his enemies. And in my view, the soda tax hurt many.

It hurt the Teamsters Dougherty was targeting, since Teamsters deliver soda, but it also hurt storeowners who say they’ve lost business or closed stores altogether as a result of the tax. It hurt poor blacks and Latinos who are statistically more likely to drink soda, and also more likely to spend a greater percentage of their food budget on such items.

If the indictment is to be believed, all these people were hurt because of a vendetta.

“The lack of regard for the amount of human suffering of our fellow citizens, because of personal revenge, is so immoral and outrageous it’s hard to put into words,” said one soda tax critic who spoke to me anonymously because he did not want to get involved in an ongoing federal investigation. “Especially for citizens of color and the poor.”

Still, it’s not Dougherty’s job to care about what happens to ordinary Philadelphians. He’s a private citizen.

But Henon—whose $70,000-a-year job with the Electricians Union was described by prosecutors as a bribe—is an elected official. He should be working on behalf of the people, not on behalf of Dougherty.

Yet at nearly every step, Dougherty directed Henon on how to prioritize and pass the soda tax, according to the indictment. Federal officials say Dougherty even instructed Henon to tell a fellow council member that the soda tax money would fund a job for that member’s wife in exchange for voting yes on the tax.  That’s corrupt. That’s unethical, and it must not be tolerated anymore.

If the federal indictment against Dougherty, Henon and others shows us anything, it shows that legislation can be used to engage in personal pettiness, brazen corruption, and the betrayal of society’s most vulnerable.

Beginning with the next election, we can fix the systemic blind spots that allowed that to happen in this case. But we can get a head start on that process right now.

We simply need Bobby Henon to resign.

Listen to Solomon Jones weekdays from 10 to Noon on Praise 107.9 HD2

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