Campaign crisis: Will candidates accept contributions from IBEW Local 98?

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John Dougherty, (right), makes some brief comments to the media, in Philadelphia. The powerful union boss who has held a tight grip on construction jobs and politics in the Philadelphia region and beyond has been indicted in an FBI probe along with a city councilman and at least six others. Federal prosecutors say Dougherty used union funds as

John Dougherty, (right), makes some brief comments to the media, in Philadelphia. The powerful union boss who has held a tight grip on construction jobs and politics in the Philadelphia region and beyond has been indicted in an FBI probe along with a city councilman and at least six others. Federal prosecutors say Dougherty used union funds as "his own personal bank account." Dougherty leads the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, along with the city's Building Trades Council. He has been at the helm of the century-old electricians union for 25 years. (Charles Fox/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP, File)

To accept or not to accept campaign contributions from IBEW Local 98 this election season? That’s the challenging question now facing candidates running for mayor or a seat on Philadelphia City Council.

Business manager John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty and his co-defendants face a long list of federal corruption charges – and potentially significant jail time – over allegations that they embezzled more than $600,000 from this politically powerful chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The 5,000-member union is not accused of committing any crimes.

For political consultant Mustafa Rashed, that’s an important distinction.

“The allegations right now are allegations against particular members of union leadership. I don’t think at all it reflects on the rank-and-file members of the union,” said Rashed. “If rank-and-file members of the union have given money, some of their hard-earned money, to donate to political candidates, I don’t see why anyone would at this point have reservations about accepting them.”

Five union employees – Brian Burrows, Michael Neil, Marita Crawford, Niko Rodriguez and Brian Fiocca – and a contractor were indicted in addition to Dougherty

City Councilman Bobby Henon is also charged with doing Dougherty’s bidding in exchange for a series of bribes, including campaign contributions and a paid union staff position he’s maintained since he was elected in 2011.

All have pleaded not guilty.

The dilemma

Federal prosecutors announced the 116-count indictment in late January. The timing makes it unlikely that Dougherty – or anyone else – will stand trial before May’s primary election. Because of the city’s deep blue voter rolls, that contest will effectively decide this year’s races.  As candidates ramp up their fundraising efforts, Dougherty will remain at the helm, deciding which candidates the union’s political action committee will support and by how much.

Teresa Lundy, another political consultant, said that creates a dilemma for candidates, especially if they have challengers looking for an edge.

“Do we wait until justice is served and still take the check? For me, personally, I’m not comfortable with taking checks from any entity or individual that is going through that amount of scrutiny and is still at the helm. So, unless there’s another leader in place, I’m not necessarily concerned about taking a check from that union or that organization,” said Lundy, campaign manager for Rochelle Bilal, a Democrat running for sheriff.

It’s unclear how many sitting City Council members agree.

WHYY requested interviews with every incumbent running for re-election who accepted campaign contributions from Local 98 in 2018. Only two of them – Cindy Bass and Cherelle Parker – responded.

Parker, whose Ninth District covers parts of Mt. Airy and West Oak Lane, said in a statement that she is “proud to have a long-standing track record of supporting working families and organized labor. And I will treat support from the working men and women of IBEW no different than I would treat support from the members of any other union.”

For now, Parker is expected to face one challenger in the May 21 Democratic primary.

Bass, whose nearby Eighth District includes parts of Northwest Philadelphia, said it’s too early to say how she’d greet a union check.

“In this country, all people are presumed innocent until proven guilty. And so, we just want to hear what the other side has to say, and then a judge and jury will weigh in, and we’ll have a final outcome at that point,” said Bass, who could have two primary opponents.

The donations

Henon, Helen Gym, Brian O’Neill, Mark Squilla, and Kenyatta Johnson also took campaign cash from Local 98’s PAC in 2018. Combined, the seven Council members brought in $73,000 from the union last year.

In 2015, Local 98 contributed $550,000 to Building a Better PA, a super PAC that supported Mayor Jim Kenney’s first run for the post.

In a statement, a campaign spokesman said the mayor “has sought and received the support of working people and the unions that represent them. He will continue to accept their support.”

Kenney’s primary challengers are taking the opposite tack.

“The problem right now is there’s a pretty clear statement of improper motives and that he’s entitled to control candidates he supports,” said Democrat Alan Butkovitz, who received nearly $100,000 from Local 98 between 2008-2017, while he was Philadelphia’s city controller.

Republican challenger Billy Ciancaglini said he would have “a lot of questions” before cashing campaign contribution from Dougherty’s union.

“I don’t think Local 98 is any type of evil organization, but I wouldn’t want to do business with Johnny Doc at this point,” said Ciancaglini.

Daphne Goggins, another Republican mayoral candidate, did not immediately return a request for comment.

It’s hard to say how much any one candidate will get from Local 98 this year. Rashed, the political consultant, said the union probably will not flex its political clout the way it has in the past, though it’s likely Kenney’s campaign is safely on the list.

“To run a robust fundraising campaign requires all of your focus, attention and energy. And, obviously, they’re going to have something that’s going to be competing for their attention that will interfere with their ability to run a robust fundraising operation,” said Rashed.

Neither Dougherty nor his union would discuss their political plans.

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