Philly’s ‘scrappy’ politics key to defense in Johnny Doc, Henon corruption trial

Johnny

Johnny "Doc" Dougherty walks to the federal courthouse in Philadelphia, Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021, to face charges in his corruption trial. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Did Philadelphia City Councilmember Bobby Henon have a “corrupt agreement” with powerful union leader Johnny “Doc” Dougherty to influence legislation and hold up contracts on the building trades boss’ command?

Or do a series of profanity-laced phone calls and texts between the two men only show old friends and public servants working on behalf of their fellow union members and constituents?

Those were the competing interpretations offered by attorneys Tuesday morning in opening arguments of the joint federal corruption trial of Henon and Dougherty, both officials of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union.

“This is a case about corruption, about bribes disguised as salaries and benefits,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Bea Witzleben told the jury in federal court in Philadelphia. In exchange for his salary and benefits as a union official, Henon served as Dougherty’s “insider,” “a sitting city councilmember who will do his bidding.”

Witzleben laid out several occasions in 2015 and 2016 when Henon allegedly took official action on Dougherty’s behalf.

They ranged from holding up a vote on a plumbing code update to pressure a plumbers’ union, to shutting down the installation of MRI machines at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia so the work would go to union workers, she said.

Dougherty allegedly used Henon to steer $2 million in work for Comcast to an electrician friend, and ordered him to hold hearings on towing companies after his car was towed, Witzleben said.

Dougherty’s attorney Henry Hockeimer stressed the gritty determination of his client as heard on thousands of calls recorded by federal agents, but said his client’s manner reflected his “single-minded focus” on creating jobs for his union members.

“He’s often bombastic. He’s often cocky. At times he’s profane. There’s no off switch on this guy,” Hockeimer said. “But through this single-minded, almost obsessive focus, he grew Local 98 into a powerhouse.”

“This is how union guys talk. They’re not in their 50th floor offices with their Ivy League degrees,” Hockeimer continued, addressing the expletive-laden phone calls key to the federal prosecutor’s case. “They’re scrappy and they’re scrapping to keep a seat at the economic table.”

Hockeimer noted that councilmembers are allowed to have outside jobs while in office, and said Henon’s union salary was sharply cut to about $70,000 after he took his seat in 2012. He earns $139,000 as a councilmember.

The attorney cast Dougherty’s involvement in City Council issues as a continuation of work he’d been doing for years on behalf of the union, as when he directly negotiated with Comcast as it sought to renew its cable contract with the city.

Hockeimer said that Henon considered Dougherty a “mentor and big brother,” and worked to benefit his constituents in the Northeast and other working-class Philadelphians.

While prosecutors argue the union leader pushed the Councilmember to support a proposed soda tax as an attack on the Teamsters union, which opposed it, Hockeimer said the union leader just wanted to help his old friend Mayor Jim Kenney, who proposed the levy. Dougherty intervened in the CHOP MRI installation because it was being done by unlicensed workers in contravention to city regulations, the attorney said.

As for the towing incident, the tow driver Dougherty tangled with did not provide legally required payment options to have his car released, and the public was already focused on problems in the towing industry before Henon called for hearings, Hockeimer said.

The trial comes two years after federal prosecutors brought a sprawling 116-count indictment against Dougherty, Henon and several members of the local electricians union. The charges have been split into two trials, with the current case focusing on the actions Henon allegedly took on behalf of Dougherty and others.

In addition to the charges relating to Dougherty, Henon is accused of taking bribes from former Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA) chairman Joseph Ashdale and from an official of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union.

Ashdale allegedly arranged to provide free window glass for the home of Courtney Voss, the councilman’s chief of staff with whom he was in a relationship, in exchange for Henon’s opposition to an audit of the PPA. Meanwhile CWA gave Henon thousands of dollars in campaign donations after he held hearings at the union’s behest to press Verizon on its bid to install fiber optic cables around the city, prosecutors said. CWA was in negotiations with Verizon at the time.

Henon’s attorney Brian McMonagle argued that neither interaction constituted a bribe and said Ashdale and the CWA official Henon spoke with, Jim Gardler, were both friends of his.

The trial is expected to last five to six weeks. as prosecutors present dozens of recordings of phone calls and texts between Henon, Dougherty, Local 98 political director Marita Crawford, and other union and political figures, including Kenney.

The jury got its first listen to those wiretaps when U.S. Attorney Frank Costello began interviewing FBI Special Agent Jason Blake about calls relating to the plumbers union and Dougherty’s successful 2015 bid to head the Building and Construction Trades Council, an umbrella organization including more than 50 unions.

In a sequence of calls from August of 2015 that Costello played in the courtroom, Dougherty first spoke with Rich Lazer, who worked for Kenney’s mayoral campaign at the time and later as deputy mayor for labor, followed by Henon, Kenney, and Henon again, coordinating efforts to pressure the plumbers union for refusing to support Dougherty’s campaign.

Dougherty asked Henon to call hearings on the plumbing code update “because it helps me with the Building Trades thing.” Henon responded, “F—, that’s exactly what I’m saying, I am going to screw them, make them come back to me, because they have been avoiding me, because of the Building Trades stuff.”

In the subsequent call with then-mayoral nominee Kenney, Dougherty asked for his help with John Kane, business manager for Plumbers Local 690 and a state senator from Chester County, saying Kane was opposing Dougherty’s efforts to reform the trades council.

“We just have to leverage him a little bit that he can’t just jump over everybody’s head,” Dougherty said.

Kenney seemed at first not to understand what Dougherty wants, but finally said, “If Kaner is coming to me for something, put him on ice for a bit?”

In a subsequent call in September, just before the Building Trades vote, Crawford called Henon to remind him to lobby other union leaders to support Dougherty’s bid.

 Disclosure: The Electricians Union Local 98 represents engineers at WHYY.

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