Federal prosecutors drilled into union leader Johnny “Doc” Dougherty’s efforts to use City Council to extract concessions from Comcast on Monday as the corruption case against the union boss and City Councilmember Bobby Henon moved into its fourth week.
The Comcast saga heated up in November of 2015 when Dougherty, head of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, told Councilmember Bobby Henon to kill legislation that would extend the telecommunication giant’s right to operate its cable TV franchise in Philadelphia for another 15 years.
“Say, ‘Hey, look, I have no interest in getting this thing done right away. I don’t know why we are doing it right now,’” Dougherty told Henon, in a wiretapped call played in federal court.
Dougherty was demanding that Comcast promise to hire union electricians to lay cable at rates higher than it usually paid non-union contractors, and one unionized firm in particular, MJK Electrical.
In the hours before a council committee was to take a crucial vote on the franchise bill, Henon and Dougherty learned that the dispute had reached the ears of Comcast CEO Brian Roberts.
In a wiretapped phone call, Henon told Dougherty that he had just run into Comcast negotiator Mark Reilly in City Hall, who told him the company was taking seriously the threat that the bill would be derailed.
“He says, I just got off the phone … with Brian Roberts. And Brian Roberts says, ‘Walk away if you can’t get a deal, you know, on the labor thing.’ He said, ‘Just, just walk away,’” Henon said on the call, which prosecutors played in court this morning.
Dougherty and Henon’s pressuring of Comcast remained the focus of the federal corruption trial of the two men as it entered its fourth week of testimony. The government alleges that Dougherty bribed Henon to do his bidding on the Comcast agreement and other council matters, paying him a $70,000 salary for a no-show job at Local 98 in exchange.
Defense attorneys argue that Henon, who worked for the union for years before being elected to council in 2011, actually did work for his Local 98 salary in 2015 and 2016. They also say he tried to extract concessions from Comcast and took other steps on behalf of construction unions as a legitimate part of his normal work for his constituents in the city’s 6th District.
In addition to Roberts, another prominent name mentioned in today’s testimony was then-mayor Michael Nutter. According to Dougherty, Nutter called him early in the morning before the council committee was to vote and asked him to stop blocking the bill.
If the committee did not send the bill to the full council that day, it would likely not pass before Nutter’s term was to end a few weeks later, leaving it to mayor-elect Jim Kenney to revive the agreement the following year and shepherd it through council.
Nutter said, “I really got to get it out today,” Dougherty told Henon on a recorded call. “I said, I don’t know why you have to get it out today.”
Nutter said he would help Dougherty with the labor issue later, but the union boss said he distrusted Comcast. “He says, I promise you, I’ll work this out in two weeks. I said, I promise you that [Comcast] won’t work it out,” Dougherty said.
Despite Roberts’ reported instructions to allow the bill to fail, Comcast was in fact at the same time negotiating to give work to MJK and its co-owner George Peltz, according to Dougherty’s recorded comments.
The day before the hearing, Dougherty was heard on a phone call with Peltz, asking him to tell him the amount he wanted to charge Comcast to lay cable in Philadelphia streets.
Today’s testimony offered few major revelations about the Comcast negotiations, which have been thoroughly dissected by prosecutors over the course of the trial. But the calls, texts, and emails presented did offer a few notable details not previously disclosed.
For example, the jury heard more about how Dougherty saw Henon as Local 98’s man on the “inside” with council, and was puzzled and annoyed by Henon’s other goals and ambitions as a council member, such as maintaining harmony with Council President Darrell Clarke.
In a call with Local 98 political director Marita Crawford, Dougherty complained that Henon, who chaired the committee overseeing the franchise legislation, kept trying to fix the bill so it would win committee approval, rather than letting it die as Dougherty asked him to do.
“I said, I don’t understand why you have to get this done this cycle. You are still going to be the head of [the] Public Property [committee], okay?” Dougherty said.
“Bobby is not going to take it out of committee, and let me tell you why, John,” Crawford explained. “Because if we go in there contradicting anything he does, he is not going to get [elected as] majority leader and that is all Bobby cares about right now.”
“What’s the urgency to help Nutter, and get this done on his watch? Darrell [Clarke] just screwed you, so why would you want to help him?” Dougherty asked.
“There’s an underlying agenda, that’s why. We just don’t know what it is,” Crawford said.
“Of course,” Dougherty said.
“Bobby always has one,” Crawford said.
On the morning of the committee hearing, Henon exchanged several text messages with a reluctant Dougherty, urging him to meet with a Comcast executive at the Marriott hotel near City Hall. Henon wanted the union leader to discuss his demands with Comcast and release his block on the bill. “I am in NO rush,” Dougherty grumbled, before agreeing to the meeting.
During that meeting Dougherty made “an outside deal” with Comcast on his demands, Henon later said in a phone call with Crawford. Dougherty had wanted the company to employ union contractors for installation of “business-to-business” cable connections and allow them to bid on jobs laying cable in the street. The committee subsequently voted to advance the bill to the full council.
“Very brutal. Clarke’s not happy. He’s mad,” Henon told Crawford, referring to the holdup over Dougherty’s demands.
“I’m glad everything worked out for you, I know it was stressful,” she said.
“Yeah, ugh. It’s an unbelievable amount of stress,” Henon said.
“You know he’s not going to understand it,” Crawford said, referring to Dougherty
“If he thinks it’s a win… Good, good for him. Let him think it, right?” Henon responded.
A few hours later Crawford relayed that exchange to Dougherty, mentioning Henon’s concern about Clarke’s anger.
“He’s like, you don’t know what it’s like on the inside. I said, yes, I do…. I said, you want to be on the outside and the inside. …If you want to be on the outside and you want to get everything you get from John, then you gotta learn that your role has a dual role,” she said.
Negotiations between Local 98 and Comcast over terms of the side deal on employing union contractors ended up continuing for at least another year, according to testimony from Andrew Topping, senior vice president for human resources at Comcast Business. But Topping said that a final agreement on the deal was never reached.
The trial is taking place two years after federal prosecutors brought a sprawling 116-count indictment against Henon, Dougherty, and several people with ties to Local 98. The charges have been split into two trials, with the current case focusing on the bribery charges against Henon and Dougherty. It is expected to last another two to three weeks.
Disclosure: The Electricians Union Local 98 represents engineers, camera personnel, editors, audio and maintenance techs at WHYY.
Subscribe to PlanPhilly