Pa. political powerbroker ‘Johnny Doc’ indicted on corruption charges

John Dougherty’s mighty labor union is one of the top contributors to Democrats in races at both the state and city level.

Labor leader John Dougherty embraces a union member during the Labor Day parade in Philadelphia on Sept. 5, 2016. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Labor leader John Dougherty embraces a union member during the Labor Day parade in Philadelphia on Sept. 5, 2016. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Updated: 2:57 p.m.

Members of the politically influential Local 98 electricians union, including boss John Dougherty and Philadelphia City Councilman Bobby Henon and six others were indicted on embezzlement, theft, wire fraud and other charges on Wednesday. Prosecutors said Dougherty, Henon and others orchestrated a long-running scheme to steal from the union, use the money improperly, and then attempt to cover up the misspent funds by falsifying federal documents.

Investigators say that Dougherty, brother of a Pa. Supreme Court justice, used the union coffers as a “slush fund for thieves and fraudsters.”

The 116-count indictment, coming more than two years after federal agents began the probe, is certain to send shockwaves across Pennsylvania, as the union’s political spending has propelled some of the state’s and city’s highest officials to office.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor
Jennifer Arbittier Williams, assistant United States Attorney with the Criminal Division of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia, speaks at the podium next to Michael Harpster, right, FBI special agent of the Philadelphia Division, and Guy Ficco of the IRS, left, in the indictment of Local 98 leader John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty at the U.S. Attorney's office in Center City Philadelphia on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019.
Jennifer Arbittier Williams, assistant United States Attorney with the Criminal Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia, speaks at the podium next to Michael Harpster, right, FBI special agent of the Philadelphia Division, and Guy Ficco of the IRS, left, in the indictment of Local 98 leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Center City Philadelphia on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. ( AP PHOTO / HEATHER KHALIFA / The Philadelphia Inquirer )

The aim of the scheme was “to embezzle, steal, and unlawfully and willfully abstract and convert the moneys, funds, securities, property, and other assets belonging to Local 98 for the personal use of the defendants and the use of their families, friends, and commercial businesses,” Acting U.S. Attorney Jennifer Williams wrote in the 153-page indictment (posted below).

At a press conference announcing the unsealing of the charges, Williams said Dougherty and other union members stole more than $600,000 from the union to “line their pockets.”

FBI Special Agent Michael Harpster, who was a lead investigator on the case, said the criminal charges show how Dougherty victimized the nearly 5,000 electric workers represented by the union.

“John Dougherty himself is not pro-union,” Harpster said. “And does not honestly represent the interests of all of 98’s membership.”

Dougherty, the union’s business manager, maintains his innocence and intends to fight the charges. Henon, a former electrician and paid employee of Local 98, has said he will not resign in the face of the federal indictment and also vowed to contest the counts against him.

The others criminally charged were Brian Burrows, Michael Neill, Marita Crawford, Niko Rodriguez and Brian Fiocca, all employees of Local 98. Prosecutors also indicted Anthony Massa, who owns Philadelphia-based Massa Construction, a contractor that did nearly $2 million of work for the union since 2010.

All of the defendants named in the case are scheduled to appear Friday afternoon in Philadelphia’s federal courthouse. If convicted, each could face prison time.

“To allege that John in any way attempted to defraud the union he cares about so deeply is preposterous,” Dougherty’s attorney, Henry Hockeimer, wrote in a statement. “He looks forward to his day in court and the opportunity to clear his name.”

Dougherty has been a powerful player in local and state politics for more than 20 years, using a political committee that’s generously funded through payroll deductions from working electricians.

He was one of the biggest supporters of Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney in his 2015 election campaign and was expected to play a similar role in his re-election effort this year, but the criminal charges against Dougherty have cast that into doubt.

Kenney distanced himself from the investigation Monday morning during an interview with reporters. He said his administration “had conversations” with federal prosecutors and that the probe would not implicate anyone in his office.

“No one in the administration — myself or anyone — is involved,” Kenney said.

Kenney added that he hasn’t seen or read the indictment. He also downplayed his political ties with lBEW Local 98.

“A lot of people have supported me,” he said. “Mostly every union in the city has supported me, along with other folks who are in the business community.”

The mayor did, however, express sympathy for Dougherty and his family. He said the union boss’s wife and daughter have been ill.

“I wish them all the best, but I can’t comment on something I haven’t read,” Kenney said.

Dougherty has generated headlines over the years for his brazen style, which he’s used to push a pro-union agenda across Philadelphia. His agents park the union’s “rat mobile” in front of construction sites that purportedly rely on non-union labor with the aim of shaming site managers. Dougherty has also deployed a fleet of drones around work sites that don’t employ his crew.

“My mother would roll over in her grave if she knew that was happening in the construction industry,” Dougherty once told reporters, in explaining his over-the-top gestures.

Reporter Dave Davies digs deeper into Doc’s indictment on Thursday’s episode of WHYY’s The Why. Listen now and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. 

‘Abdicated his responsibility’

According to the indictment, Henon used his City Council seat to do Dougherty’s bidding in exchange for a “stream of personal benefits” and other gifts, according to Williams.

For instance, a tow truck driver tried to remove Dougherty’s car and Dougherty had to pay $200 to get his vehicle from off the tow truck.

“I think, tomorrow, we f*cking put in a bill to certify, ‘cause if they can rob me, they can try to rob anybody,” Dougherty said, telling Henon he should push to have tow drivers undergo mandatory training.

Henon, according to prosecutors, then had his staff make a secret recording of the impounding lot in question.

The indictment states that Dougherty also asked Henon to hold public hearings on the towing company, which he did, as a means of seeking revenge, prosecutors said.

“Just tell them you have heard nothing but complaints,” Dougherty said to Henon. “Just smoke ‘em.” And Henon agreed to work on it.

In other words, Williams said, Henon “abdicated his responsibility” to be an honest public servant.

During his time as an elected official, Henon, who represents parts of Northeast Philadelphia, continued to hold a staff position at Local 98, earning $70,000 atop his government salary for nondescript office work. Federal authorities now assert that this role was solely designed by Dougherty to influence Henon’s activities as an elected official.

City Councilman Bobby Henon. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

As an example of this influence, federal authorities asserted that Dougherty compelled Henon to use the city’s Department of Licenses & Inspections to punish the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for using a non-union contractor to install an MRI machine.

“It is also an L&I violation,” Dougherty warns a CHOP official. “You don’t want a city thing shutting it down. We have had other hospitals shut down because of that.”

The hospital proceeded with the machine’s installation. Federal agents later captured text and phone exchanges between Dougherty and Henon, in which the councilman compels the department to issue a “stop work” order as punishment.

When an L&I staffer eventually reversed this order, Doc notified Henon, instructing him that the work stoppage should continue.

“I’ll walk over personally,” Henon said.

In a post on his Facebook page Wednesday afternoon, Henon wrote, “I have done nothing wrong.”

“I look forward to clearing my name and I will never waiver in my pursuit to protect and serve the working people who live in and built this city,” he wrote.

In a statement, City Council President Darrell Clarke said the charges against Henon “are grave and must be taken seriously,” adding that Henon “is entitled to defend himself if he believes the government’s allegations to be erroneous.”

Local 98’s political committee typically donates more than $2 million a year to political candidates and committees, making Dougherty’s support widely courted, and giving him appointments and leverage that augment the union’s power.

Local 98’s support was key to electing John Street as mayor in 1999 and 2003, and Ed Rendell as governor in 2002 and 2006. The union has also spent lavishly on Philadelphia City Council candidates, and has several direct allies, like Henon and Councilman Mark Squilla, seated in the chamber.

The union has also been a generous donor to Gov. Tom Wolf.

In Harrisburg, Wolf deflected questions Wednesday about whether the indictments will make him think differently about accepting tens of thousands of dollars in campaign money from Local 98.

“Those were contributions by individual workers and their families. They were voluntarily given. I really value and appreciate the support I got from working people all across Pennsylvania, and what happens at the senior level of leadership at any organization, I think, the law will do what it has to do,” said Wolf. “I expect justice will be done here.”

Dougherty’s brother, Kevin was elected to Philadelphia Common Pleas Court with the union’s help in 2002, and he ascended to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2015 aided by massive spending by Dougherty and his allies in other unions.

Local 98’s political committee has also contributed generously to a host of candidates for other state and local offices, making Dougherty a major political player throughout the region and state.

“The big story here obviously is that this is one of the most powerful union leaders in the state and also a major political force in Pennsylvania,” said F&M University pollster G. Terry Madonna. “In terms of the campaign resources he’s spent in Philly, it’s just enormous. It’s millions of millions of dollars. He’s close to Mayor Kenney, he’s close to his brother, [Pa. Supreme Court] Justice Kevin Dougherty.”

The union supports both Democrats and Republicans. A WHYY story last year found Local 98 had donated more than $500,000 to Republican candidates in Delaware County over the past four years.

But Madonna said the labor leader was more strongly connected with Pa. Democrats.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“There’s no doubt that he was one of the major, major players for the Democratic party, in terms of campaign spending,” he said.

While Dougherty wields enormous influence through the union’s political spending, Local 98 also organizes election day field operations to help favored candidates, and in the past has practiced a more aggressive form of campaigning Dougherty once referred to as “in your face politics.”

A spokesman for IBEW national office, in Washington DC, declined to comment on Wednesday.

At Wednesday’s press conference, federal authorities emphasized to reporters that Local 98 officials were more interested in enriching themselves than they were in the welfare of rank-and-file union members.

“The money and funds of Local 98 were for the benefit of the union and its members,” said Guy Ficco, a special agent of criminal investigations with the Internal Revenue Service. “These defendants and other employees of Local 98 treated union funds like their personal piggy-banks.”

Avi Wolfman-Arent, Aaron Moselle and Katie Meyer contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The Electricians Union Local 98 represents engineers at WHYY

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

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