‘Johnny Doc’ accused in lawsuit of intimidating, threatening would-be union candidates

Union Leader John Dougherty exits federal court after he pled not guilty at his arraignment Friday, Feb. 1, 2019,(Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Union Leader John Dougherty exits federal court after he pled not guilty at his arraignment Friday, Feb. 1, 2019,(Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The U.S. Department of Labor is suing to remove Philadelphia labor leader John Dougherty — and a slate of other union executives — from their posts with the city’s politically powerful chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

In a civil complaint filed in federal court Friday, government prosecutors accuse the group of intimidating and threatening other members who sought to challenge them during the union’s most recent election in June 2020.

The goal was to ensure that Dougherty and others would face no opposition in the election, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit, filed less than two months before Dougherty’s federal embezzlement trial is scheduled to start, seeks to void the results and hold a new election. If successful, it would also bar current officeholders from running for their posts again.

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“Every union member has a federally protected right to have his or her voice heard in a free and fair union election. It is protected by law. If union leadership interferes with anyone’s right to vote or seek office within the union, the United States will hold them accountable,” said First U.S. Attorney Jennifer Wiliams.

In a statement, union spokesman Frank Keel slammed the lawsuit. He also raised questions about the timing of the complaint, which comes less than two weeks before the end of President Donald Trump’s presidency and a day after President-elect Joe Biden made his pick for secretary of labor.

“John and the other duly-elected Local 98 officers want to have an election and look forward to their day in court,” said Keel. “The union has never been stronger than it is currently, which is the reason no one ran against the incumbent team.”

The 13-page complaint alleges union leadership “threatened the livelihoods” of three of its members who intended to seek or nominate others for office in last summer’s election.

In one instance, Dougherty, the union’s longstanding business manager, allegedly told one of the members in a phone call that “it’ll be a long three years if you lose.”

As a result, only incumbent officers were nominated for office last June, making the election moot. All incumbent officers were automatically reelected to their posts.

Charles Battle wanted to run for union president, but he effectively withdrew from the race because he thought his supporters would lose work if they went through with nominating him, according to the suit.

Before he submitted his nomination form, the union’s business agent showed up to Battle’s house twice — unannounced — to talk to him about why he was “angry” with union leadership, the complaint says. At union meetings, Battle had raised concerns about the direction of the union and questioned Dougherty about the money that was allegedly stolen from the union.

Before the union’s nomination meeting got underway, a crowd of Dougherty supporters gathered in the parking lot of the union hall as part of an effort to intimidate Battle, according to the suit.

Timothy McConnell intended to run for the union’s executive board. He dropped out after receiving dozens of phone calls about his interest in the position, including one from Dougherty, who allegedly shouted at McConnell, “If you ain’t with me, you’re against me.”

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A day before the nomination meeting, Philadelphia ward leader Brian Eddis called a friend of McConnell to relay a message to McConnell. He allegedly told the friend he “did not want to see anything happen” to McConnell.

The implication was McConnell would lose work if he went through with running for office, according to the suit.

Michael Coppinger also wanted to run for the union’s executive board. He also received dozens of phone calls after signaling his intentions, including one from Ed Coppinger, his uncle and a former business agent with the union. Coppinger allegedly called his nephew to deliver a message from Dougherty that his career would be “finished” if he ran for office.

Coppinger dropped out of the race the same day.

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