‘He said he could have me replaced’: City official alleges threat from Johnny Doc

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)

Updated at 7:10 p.m.

Building union leader Johnny “Doc” Dougherty threatened the former head of Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses & Inspections during a meeting in Councilmember Bobby Henon’s office, saying he could have the commissioner fired, according to testimony heard Tuesday in federal court.

Carlton Williams, the former L&I commissioner who now leads the Streets Department, testified as part of the federal corruption trial of Henon and Dougherty, who leads Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The second week of testimony began Tuesday.

Williams said he went to Henon’s office in July 2014 to discuss possible building code violations at a Center City construction site and was surprised to see Dougherty there. Dougherty began talking about the city’s responsibility in a building collapse on Market Street the previous year in which six people died.

L&I’s oversight of building demolitions was under scrutiny after the collapse and Williams later faced pressure to resign.

“At some point in the meeting he said he could have me replaced,” Williams said during questioning by a federal prosecutor. “I took it as an idle threat and pretty much moved on to ask why I was here.”

The meeting is one of several instances prosecutors have presented where Henon appears to have helped Dougherty pressure L&I to find violations at non-union construction sites. The project in question, the Goldtex Apartments building near 12th and Vine streets, was the subject of a long-running feud between the developers and construction unions, including Local 98.

At the time, then-U.S. Rep. Bob Brady and others compared Goldtex to the Market Street demolition, saying the union complaints were aimed at preventing another disaster. The Goldtex developers rejected the comparison, calling it “fear-mongering” by union supporters.

Williams said he visited the Goldtex site after the meeting in Henon’s office to see whether there were any violations. While the project had been cited previously, the problems Dougherty alleged — a ceiling ladder blocking a fire exit, and a mechanical space being used as a loft — either did not occur or did not violate regulations, he said.

The commissioner discussed other times he was personally involved in investigating complaints from Henon. He said the council member called him two to three times a month, more often than other council members, to report potential violations such as work being done by unlicensed contractors. Henon also headed a council committee on L&I and advocated for better funding and staffing for the department, Williams said.

Williams also spoke briefly about complaints related to the installation of two MRI machines by non-union workers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) in July and August 2015. According to one set of bribery charges, Dougherty and Henon tried to get L&I to stop the installation of the machines.

A city inspector testified last week that he saw no violations when visiting one of the MRI rooms in July, but after conferring with Williams his superiors at L&I told him to issue a stop-work order nonetheless. This morning Williams said he did not recall being involved in the July complaint. Henon did call him about a second MRI installation in August, and in that case an inspector determined a violation had occurred and issued a stop-work order.

Asked about whether responding to council members’ requests took time away from his other responsibilities, Williams said, “That was my job.”

“You didn’t prioritize Henon’s calls over any other member of City Council, or any other member of government, or really any other citizen of the city and county of Philadelphia?” asked Henon’s defense attorney Brian McMonagle.

“That’s correct,” Williams said.

One of the complaints concerned the installation of LED screens at Lincoln Financial Field in 2014, which was being done by members of the sheet metal workers union rather than electricians. In that case, Williams decided the sheet metal workers were qualified to do the work.

Another complaint alleging dangerous work was being done at the Westin Hotel on Market Street in 2015 was determined to be unfounded. Dougherty initiated that complaint during a visit to the hotel, according to evidence presented last week.

Willams also discussed a violation issued against Local 98 itself in June 2015 for posting oversized campaign signs on its offices near 16th and Spring Garden streets. The signs were for Jim Kenney, then a mayoral candidate, and Dougherty’s brother Kevin Dougherty, who was running for state Supreme Court.

Prosecutors allege that Henon took a number of official actions as a council member for Dougherty in exchange for a $70,000 salary for a no-show job at Local 98. The defense argues that Henon earned his salary, that he acted legitimately on behalf of his constituents, and no bribery occurred.

A plan to pressure Verizon

Jurors got a detailed look at the inner workings of Councilmember Henon’s office in 2015 and 2016, the period when, unbeknownst to him, he was being investigated by the FBI for alleged corruption.

They heard hours of testimony from Christopher Creelman, who worked for Henon from 2012 until he moved to the Parks & Recreation department in 2017. Among other details, Creelman said when the councilmember took office, he told staffers to continue using private email accounts from his election campaign rather than switch to an official city email account.

Henon said they should use the BobbyHenon.com email addresses so that “in case we were ever subpoenaed from that server, we wouldn’t have to turn [the emails] over,” Creelman said. He later learned that those emails could in fact be subpoenaed, and dozens of them have been presented in the trial.

FBI agents executed a search of Henon’s district office in August 2016. They interviewed Creelman in the office that day and again on later occasions, he said. When Henon would ask him a few times if he had spoken to the FBI again, Creelman lied and said he had not.

“I continued to tell him I didn’t,” he said. “I didn’t want to make an uncomfortable situation more uncomfortable.”

Much of Creelman’s testimony concerned Verizon’s cable franchise agreement with the city. Prosecutors allege that in 2016 Henon tried to pressure or embarrass Verizon by holding a council committee hearing on the agreement, in exchange for campaign donations from the Communication Workers of America (CWA) union. CWA was in contract negotiations with the company at the time and went on strike.

A series of emails reviewed in court show Henon scheduling a hearing for late 2015, only to cancel it at the last moment and reschedule to April 2016. During the hearing he warned Verizon not to renege on its obligations to build out its fiber-optic network equitably to all neighborhoods, while an overflow crowd of CWA workers in matching red-and-white shirts loudly booed company executives.

Emails from Verizon executive Doug Smith indicate that Creelman had advised the company in advance that Henon was acting in coordination with the CWA. “Chris [said] the hearing will quickly turn to questions about the contract negotiations and strike. He said the CWA has been sending questions to Bobby for his use on this topic,” Smith said in an email that he accidentally sent to Henon.

In another email, Smith said that Creelman had told him “that Bobby put on a show at the hearing, as expected, for the CWA.”

The emails brought an angry response from Henon’s lawyer Brian McMonagle, who suggested that by “tipping off” Smith, who was his friend, Creelman had betrayed Henon. Creelman said he had only been trying to let the telecom company know what would take place during the hearing. “Are you sure you weren’t working for Verizon?” McMonagle asked him. “Is that what you were doing, ‘coordinating’?”

Creelman was followed on the witness stand by Steve Robertson, chief of staff in the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology, which oversees cable franchise agreements.

Prosecutor Bea Witzleben asked Robertson detailed, sometimes technical questions about how the city determined whether Verizon had redlined, or avoided, certain neighborhoods when building out its network. Robertson said a city-commissioned review found that the company was not guilty of redlining.

Prosecutors appear to be trying to establish that Henon did not have legitimate reason to hold the hearing and did so only to win financial support for his campaign war chest from CWA. Roberts is due to return to court Wednesday morning.

Henon’s support for a proposal to create a sweetened beverage tax or “soda tax” also came up again during the day’s testimony, as it has throughout the trial. The government alleges that Henon was an early supporter of the tax at the behest of Dougherty, who thought a tax would harm the Teamsters union, his rivals at the time on certain union issues.

Attorneys for the two sides sparred over whether Henon was acting on Dougherty’s orders or actually supported the tax on its merits. Creelman testified that the majority of Henon’s constituents in the 6th councilmanic district were against the tax, and prosecutors presented comments from residents condemning him for supporting it.

Under questioning from McMonagle, Creelman said it was common for constituents to complain about taxes generally. Some 6th District residents supported the tax, and the new revenue was successfully used to fund popular programs, including pre-K education, community schools, and renovations of parks and libraries.

The trial comes two years after federal prosecutors brought a 116-count indictment against Dougherty, Henon, and several others with ties to Local 98. 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 and the CWA, Henon is accused of taking bribes from former Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA) chairman Joseph Ashdale.

The trial is expected to last another four to five weeks.

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

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