Feds: Ironworkers boss turned union into ‘700-man army to do his bidding’

 Signs of vandalism and arson are shown at the Chestnut Hill Meetinghouse site after a Dec. 2012 fire. The operating cabin of a construction crane was rendered useless. (Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

Signs of vandalism and arson are shown at the Chestnut Hill Meetinghouse site after a Dec. 2012 fire. The operating cabin of a construction crane was rendered useless. (Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

Joseph Dougherty, former boss of Philadelphia’s Ironworkers Local 401, headed to federal court on Monday morning to face charges that he turned the union into a “criminal enterprise.” 

Dougherty is charged with 10 counts including conspiring to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, using fire to commit a felony and extortion.

Threatening “goon squads”?

In his opening statements, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert J. Livermore said Dougherty used the union as a “700-man army to do his bidding,” taking advantage of his role as business manager, financial secretary and treasurer.

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That meant employing so-called “shadow gangs” or “goon squads” to threaten non-union contractors to hire union workers on job sites in and around Philadelphia, according to Livermore.

Ties to Chestnut Hill

A Dec. 2012 arson attack at the site of a Quaker meetinghouse being built in Chestnut Hill prompted the FBI to launch an investigation into union’s activities.

Judd Branning of steel-erecting company Branning Brothers, was the contractor tasked with steel and iron work on the now-open meetinghouse.

Testifying Monday, he said his business usually stays out of Philadelphia.

“We wanted to stay out of the union’s area,” said Branning, adding that his company bid for the meetinghouse work because they thought a religious project would be “safe.”

Plus, he said, the construction industry was dried up at the time with little work available.

“The economy was so rough we had to bid on anything,” he said.

According to Branning, a union member visited the East Mermaid Lane site after his company started work there. Shortly after he refused to engage in a conversation about hiring union workers, steel beams and bolts were cut and a crane was set on fire, he said.

The defense opens

Defense attorney Fortunato Perri Jr. argued in his opening statement that applying “pressure” to non-union contractors was an age-old tradition in construction — not one invented by Dougherty.

Perri implored the jury to have an open mind throughout the trial and pay attention to the evidence. In more than 1,000 calls the government listened to between elected union officials, there isn’t one where Dougherty is directing someone to commit an act of violence, the attorney noted.

The evidence against Dougherty

The FBI reportedly obtained evidence, dating back to 2010, of union members’ involvement in acts of arson or extortion on 25 different job sites.

The sites include a Toys R Us store near the King of Prussia mall, a Planet Fitness location in Roxborough, an Olive Garden restaurant in Montgomery County and a La Colombe warehouse.

FBI agents gained access to cellphone records and text messages and tapped the phones of union’s Northeast Philadelphia headquarters as well as the cellphones of high-level union “business agents,” who Livermore said were charged with carrying out acts of intimidation or violence.

The prosecution also said Dougherty took advantage of working-class ironworkers who wanted to move up the ranks.

“Ironworkers who joined goon squads got the best jobs and promotions,” said Livermore. “Union members faced a stark choice: Join the goon squad or get in the back of the line for a job.”

Livermore said portions of 50 phone calls will be used as part of the government’s defense over the course of the trial.

Of the 12 union members indicted for the crimes in early 2014, 11 have pleaded guilty, leaving only 73-year-old Dougherty to face trial.

Livermore said at least half of those who have pleaded guilty will be testifying during the trial, which is expected to last at least a week.

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