‘Just John’s little guy’: FBI wiretaps reveal power play between union leader, council member

FBI wiretaps captured conversations between Local 98 union leader Johnny Doc and City Councilmember Bobby Henon about political favors and dirty payback.


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 7:54 p.m.

Philadelphia City Councilmember Bobby Henon’s allegedly corrupt advocacy on behalf of the political ambitions of union leader Johnny “Doc” Dougherty took center stage on the second day of the federal corruption trial of the two men.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Costello played a series of phone recordings from FBI wiretaps in September 2015 that traced Dougherty’s successful efforts, with assistance from Henon and others, to win election as head of the Building & Construction Trades Council, an umbrella group of more than 50 unions.

The position came with a $147,714 salary in 2016, in addition to the $254,731 Dougherty earned from Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Dougherty heads the union and Henon works under him there.

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Over the course of a few hours on the day of the election, the recordings capture Henon and Dougherty the two men discussing their vote-whipping strategy, and Henon calling others to discuss talk about opposition from the Teamsters and Plumbers unions to Dougherty’s candidacy. In one call, he said he would use his City Council position to pressure the plumbers.

“The plumbers are acting like total d****,” Henon told then-state Rep. William Keller in one call. “I’m going to call the shots here.” Speaking about a plumbers union leader, Henon said, “I’m going to teach him a f****** lesson” by introducing legislation to change the city’s plumbing code against the union’s wishes.

That legislation was meant to modernize city plumbing regulations by abolishing rules that the union had a role in crafting, and switching instead to an international plumbing code. Union officials were concerned the move would lead to less work for their members.

That regulatory change plays a key role in the government’s case against Henon and Dougherty. The federal case depends on proving that Henon took official action, such as delaying the plumbing code legislation, based on orders from Dougherty.

Later on the same day Henon told Keller that he would be teaching the plumbers a lesson, Dougherty made a triumphant call to Local 98’s political director, Marita Crawford, with an update. He told her that after tightly directing the councilmember’s lobbying efforts, he won the Trades election by a wide margin. Henon had done him a favor, he said.

“You know, I beat up Johnny Henon,” Dougherty said. “He was f****** awesome. He took his f****** ward leader hat off, he took his f****** councilman hat off… He was just f****** John’s little guy.”

“Good,” Crawford responded.

Jockeying over the soda tax

Federal prosecutors argue that the recordings and other evidence show that Henon served as Dougherty’s personal councilmember on retainer, doing the union leader’s bidding in exchange for his salary for a no-show job at Local 98.

Attorneys for Henon and Dougherty reject all the charges, arguing that Henon performed work for the union, no bribery occurred, and their allegedly corrupt actions were actually legal activities on behalf of their constituents and union members.

Testimony continued in the afternoon as prosecutors played more recordings while questioning FBI Special Agent Jason Blake about their contents.

They include calls and texts relating to a long-running labor dispute at the Pennsylvania Convention Center and the city’s sweetened-beverage tax, which Dougherty allegedly asked Henon to support as retaliation against a Teamsters union whose members drive soda trucks.

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In texts sent over wiretapped phones, Henon and Dougherty messaged about a TV commercial critical of the union leader, which was financed by rival unions.

“I just saw the Carpenters and Teamsters commercial with you in it. I’m going to f*** them big time, just so you know,” Henon texted to Dougherty, according to FBI transcripts.

“Now let me tell you what Bobby Henon’s going to do,” Dougherty subsequently told another union official “And he’s already talked to Jimmy Kenney. They’re going to start to put a tax on soda again.”

Dougherty told him that predicted the tax would end up costing the Teamsters 100 jobs in the city.

Henon later texted Dougherty, “I’m f****** them … I’m just so mad … I will be smart about it but there will be consequences.”

Dougherty “would call anyone”

Defense attorneys sought to pick apart Blake’s testimony, saying the relatively small number of calls and texts presented in court did not tell the full story of Dougherty and Henon’s actions.

Attorney Terence Grugan noted that in one August 2015 phone call, it is Henon, rather than Dougherty, who presents the idea of suspending action on the plumbing legislation in order to exert influence on the plumbers union. “Well, so what do you want to do?” Dougherty asks, apparently deferring to Henon.

Grugan also tried to put a different light on communications concerning efforts by Henon, Dougherty, and others to stop unlicensed, non-union contractors from installing MRI machines at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in July and August 2015.

The two men tried to obscure their role behind complaints to the Departments of Licenses & Inspections, according to the calls and texts. On one call Dougherty is heard saying he doesn’t want Local 98’s “fingerprints” on a complaint, while on another Henon tells a union official to delete an email and to communicate with him only via text.

In one call, Dougherty seems to want to hide his use of the councilman to make a complaint about the CHOP project, saying, “I had Bobby… call that guy, but we don’t want that out that we did that.” But under Grugan’s questioning, Blake admitted Dougherty could have been referring to Robert Boland, a business agent for Local 98, rather than Henon.

Grugan also noted that the FBI recordings left out material that agents thought was not relevant to their investigation. Blake admitted that he had listened in on calls as Dougherty complained to other councilmembers, including Kenney and Mark Squilla, about non-union or unlicensed contractors on calls that were not submitted as evidence in the trial.

“You agree with me that if he had a problem with a job site, he would call anybody who would listen?” the attorney asked. “It wasn’t just Councilman Henon who he would call, right?”

“No, he would call other councilmen,” the FBI agent agreed.

The trial comes two years after federal prosecutors brought a sprawling 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, Henon is accused of taking bribes from former Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA) chairman Joseph Ashdale and from an official of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union.

The trial started Monday and is expected to last five to six weeks.

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

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