Pa. investigates altercation involving union leader Dougherty, non-union contractor

Labor leader John Dougherty (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

Labor leader John Dougherty (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

Pennsylvania and federal investigators are examining a fracas between powerful Philadelphia labor leader John Dougherty and a non-union contractor last month at a work site in the city.

Dougherty, known by many as “Johnny Doc,” has said he was visiting the construction site in South Philly when he asked the contractor to remove a Local 98 sticker from his truck since he wasn’t using union electricians.

Words were exchanged, including threats to Dougherty’s family, according to the Inquirer, and the contractor was left with a broken nose.

Bob Mozenter, an attorney for contractor Joshua Keesee, tells a different story.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

His client “bought the truck from a union guy that happened to have the sticker on it,” Mozenter said.

According to Mozenter, when Dougherty asked Keesee to remove the bumper sticker, his client said it would be no problem. But Mozenter said that’s when Dougherty chewed Keesee out for not hiring union electricians instead of the lower-cost non-union labor. 

“That was the beginning of the end for him,” Mozenter said. “Because they started taking the sticker off, then Dougherty got more agitated and attacked him, hit him with a combination of a left and a right.”

According to a police report, after Dougherty threw a punch at Keessee, three men with him continued to punch and kick the contractor before Dougherty and his crew drove away some time after 8:30 a.m. on Jan. 21. 

Police recommended that the Philadelphia district attorney’s office press charges, but District Attorney Seth Williams, who’s received campaign contributions from Local 98, said he was too close to Dougherty for his office to prosecute.

“There’s a conflict of interest,” said Williams spokesman Cameron Kline.

jdocx600This screenshot taken from shows John Dougherty and Joshua Keesee moments before the altercation. (Electronic image via

University of Pennsylvania law professor Claire Finkelstein, who leads an ethics center at the school, said there could be another component to letting another agency handle the case.

“People do not want to be perceived as attacking labor unions,” Finkelstein said. “And so, they’re concerned about the political impact of taking on a prosecution like this.”

The Pennsylvania attorney general’s office is now handling the case, but the state’s top attorney Kathleen Kane said she can’t be personally involved because she too has received money from the union.

Mozenter said it appears as if political donations are getting in the way of justice.

“If I contributed $500 to Seth Williams’ campaign, and I get arrested for aggravated assault, should I call him up and say, ‘Listen, I gave you $500. There’s a conflict, Don’t arrest me?'”

One unknown in the case is why the FBI is involved. Jim Reid, who runs Reid’s Auto Service on South Third Street, had some surveillance footage of the site of the altercation, and he recently welcomed some unusual visitors.

“Two FBI agents come over, just guys with suits on,” he said.

That was a first, Reid said.

“I just gave it to them, I didn’t know if I was allowed to, or had to, I didn’t know.”

The outcome of the case could have far-reaching ripple effects since Dougherty’s union has multimillion-dollar coffers that help fuel political campaigns around the state.

Whether he was acting in self-defense, or acting as the aggressor, will now be up to the state attorney general’s office to decide.

But attorney Mozenter said has little faith in state attorneys filing charges.

“I think this is going to be swept under the rug.” 

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal