Another corruption probe: What’s up Doc?

    Union leader John Dougherty speaks with law enforcement as his home is searched Friday. (Emma Lee)

    Union leader John Dougherty speaks with law enforcement as his home is searched Friday. (Emma Lee)

    When I heard Friday that FBI agents were crawling all over the home and office of electricians union leader John Dougherty and carrying out boxes, so many memories came to mind.

    Like the cold December day years ago in New York, when I saw hot dog vendors in Times Square wearing hoodie sweatshirts that read, “Dougherty For Mayor 2007.”

    It was Pennsylvania Society Weekend, when hundreds of Pennsylvania political players flock to Manhattan for receptions and fundraisers, and Dougherty operatives had handed out the sweatshirts so Philadelphians arriving and getting cabs at Penn Station would get the message.

    Dougherty decided not to run for mayor then, but he’s had his hand in every significant election in this town and many across the state for more than a decade now.

    Johnny Doc is a larger-than-life presence here. He’s aggressive, cocky, and ambitious.

    He’s waged a determined effort to limit non-union construction jobs in the city, generating accusations of intimidation and bullying (which, the Inquirer reported yesterday, is now the subject of a separate state investigation).

    Political powerhouseDougherty’s also built a massive campaign fund from his member’s contributions and used it build political power. That’s gotten him political leverage in dozens of places, and key appointments from politicians he’s helped – he chaired the city Redevelopment Authority under Mayor John Street, for example.

    He hires some smart people, and puts time and money into charitable work – a lot of which he brags about, and some I’ve seen him do quietly.

    He’s worked a lot on city development deals, in part to create jobs for his members, and also I think because he’s committed to the city’s growth and progress.

    But Dougherty has an impulsive streak and tends to personalize things. He rewards friends and nurses grudges. He’s gotten into blood feuds with former allies, like city Democratic chairman and U.S. Rep Bob Brady, a rift that’s more or less healed now.

    His relationship with Mayor Kenney is another case in point.

    Doc and Kenney knew each other growing in South Philadelphia, and when Dougherty emerged as a political player, he was an ally of the powerful South Philly State Sen. Vince Fumo, then Kenney’s political patron. So Doc and Kenney were allies.

    But Dougherty got into a snit with Fumo which spread into their respective camps, and there was a lengthy period when Dougherty and Kenney said the worst things about each other.

    This led to one of my best-read and strangest columns ever, when Dougherty told me he knew I was getting bad information on him from Kenney, and he knew exactly how often Kenney and I spoke on the phone (which he was wrong about).

    Fumo eventually went down in a federal corruption case, and Kenney and Doc gradually built a new alliance.

    I asked Kenney about this turnaround in April of last year, when he was running for mayor, and Doc was a huge supporter. He said Dougherty was different years ago.

    “I think at the time he was somewhat of a different person in that maybe his maturity level wasn’t what it is now, and he reacted to things in ways that we wouldn’t appreciate now,” Kenney said. “But I think that’s not the same type of person that we’re dealing with.”

    Maybe, maybe notIf Dougherty is more mature, that wasn’t on display in February, when he got into a physical confrontation at a South Philadelphia job site. The details of the encounter are in dispute, but you have to wonder what Dougherty, at his age and with his responsibilities, was doing in that situation.

    Phone lines and texts are buzzing now with speculation on just what the federal probe is about, and whether the raids mean Dougherty’s goose is cooked.

    The Inquirer quoted a source Saturday as saying the investigation is about the union’s finances (a pretty broad area) and its involvement in political campaigns, including Kenney’s.

    I wrote during the mayor’s race that it was curious that Dougherty was a key backer of Kenney, but neither of them really talked about it. When Kenney went to the union hall for an endorsement event, it was closed to the media.

    There was an obvious reason for the two to keep some distance: Dougherty was actively supporting Kenney’s campaign through a Super PAC called Build a Better Pa, and election law forbids Super PAC’s from coordinating activities with candidates they support.

    Build a Better Pa spent over $1.6 million in support of Kenney’s candidacy, and about a third of that, $550,000, came from Dougherty’s union’s political committee.

    My gut tells me this isn’t about Doc illegally coordinating with Kenney in the mayor’s race. If it were, you’d think the feds would have subpoenaed stuff from the mayor, and his people say they weren’t contacted. Kenney says he knows nothing about it.

    And I have to think that Kenney, after all he’s seen, would have been pretty careful about crossing lines. But I’ve been disappointed by politicians before.

    And it bears noting that Dougherty has a record of pushing the envelope for candidates he supports.In 2008, after a lengthy Ethics Board investigation and court battle, the union admitted funding consultants who produced anonymous fliers attacking Michael Nutter and Bob Brady in the 2007 mayor’s race, paying a $10,000 penalty for related campaign finance violations.And the union has been creative in finding ways to get around city campaign contribution limits to support their favored candidates in Council elections.

    So what is this about?We don’t know much yet, but we may get an idea soon. As the feds start serving subpoenas on potential witnesses, some information may become public.

    But there’s no guarantee we’ll know all the details, or that it will even result in any charges.

    When the feds last looked into Dougherty, an old friend of his named Gus Dougherty (no relation) pled guilty, but Doc walked away untouched.

    When the investigation into Philadelphia Congressman Chaka Fattah emerged into public view last year, it happened in a court filing that made it pretty clear Fattah was in deep trouble.

    We have no such information in Dougherty’s case, but the breadth of the searches Friday, hitting multiple locations and targeting the office of City Councilman Bobby Henon, a former political director of Dougherty’s union, suggests a pretty serious effort on the feds’ part.

    I just hope this gets resolved quickly. Given the spate of corruption cases we’ve seen in Philadelphia lately, we don’t need a long stretch in which the city’s most powerful union leader, and one of the mayor’s most important supporters, operates under a cloud of suspicion.

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