Power abuse: Doc, Henon and the public trust

Philadelphia City Councilman Bobby Henon wears a Local 98 T-shirt at the Labor Day parade. Henon's office at City Council was searched by the FBI a month before. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia City Councilman Bobby Henon wears a Local 98 T-shirt at the Labor Day parade. Henon's office at City Council was searched by the FBI a month before. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Wednesday’s indictment of electricians union boss John Dougherty, Philadelphia City Councilman Bobby Henon, and six others, laid out 116 counts of theft, bribery, and embezzlement. Somehow even more astounding is the indictment’s description of how Henon used even the most mundane municipal government processes to do Dougherty’s bidding and reinforce his power.

The charges unspool a pattern of behavior benefitting Henon and Dougherty at the expense of the public trust – an abuse of the systems and representation citizens rely on for fairness in development issues big and small, from adding fiber optic infrastructure to how city building inspectors should be spending their time.

First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams said Henon “abdicated his responsibility” to honestly serve the public as a District Councilman representing part of Northeast Philadelphia and as chair of council’s public property committee.

Henon issued a statement Wednesday denying any wrongdoing. “I have always served my constituents with honesty, integrity and have always put my constituents and the people of Philadelphia first,” he wrote. He tweeted about cupcakes in his office earlier on Wednesday, saying his staff was ready to work with constituents.

“I don’t give a f*** about anybody, all right, but f***ing you and us…”

Strange as it may seem from a good government perspective, councilmembers can hold other jobs during their terms in office. Henon became Local 98’s political leader in 2003 and stayed on after he was elected to City Council in 2012, earning more than $70,000 annually. The indictment states that Henon wasn’t “office staff,” as the union claimed. He was Dougherty’s man in council, allegedly using his property-related and political powers in service of their tight relationship – the nature of which they tried to hide from the public.

Henon, the indictment said, abused the Department of Licenses & Inspections’ enforcement power by complaining about a non-union installation of an MRI machine at Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania – a retaliatory request from Dougherty. The inspection led to a stop-work order and the Certificate of Occupancy being withheld.

Henon allegedly used negotiations with Comcast for its 15-year franchise agreement as an opportunity to give voice to Dougherty’s demands that the cable giant steer more fiber optic work to union electrical contractors. He advanced the agreement in Council and voted for it only after Dougherty and Comcast agreed on terms.

Dougherty grew concerned that Henon wasn’t doing his bidding at one point during that process. Henon agreed to slow the agreement through his committee until Dougherty got what he wanted.

“I don’t give a f*** about anybody, all right, but f***ing you and us, and you know that,” Henon told Dougherty.

That may be all we need to know about who Henon was serving. Of course, there’s more.

Even Henon’s support for Mayor Kenney’s sweetened beverage tax didn’t stem from a desire to fund pre-K or invest in rec centers. The indictment suggests Dougherty saw it as a way to get back at the Teamsters Union, which had paid for a political commercial portraying Dougherty negatively and opposed the tax. He reported back to Dougherty while drumming up support for the tax that one Councilmember would vote for it in exchange for a “little, like, hug” – to which Dougherty said: “… Let him know that once you get this stuff, there’s gonna be a ton of major league jobs, that his wife [is] more than qualified for.” Henon voted for the soda tax.

The city’s plumbing code was used as yet another pawn. Dougherty allegedly told Henon to delay passage of a bill that would revise the code so he could use it as leverage to help get elected as business manager of the Building Trades. They had this exchange:

Henon: “F*** the Plumbers”
Dougherty: “Do it because it helps me with the Building Trades thing.”
Henon: “F*** it. That is exactly what I am saying, I am going to screw them, make them come back to me, because they have been avoiding me, because of the Building Trades stuff.”
Dougherty: “Yo, you hear what I am saying, do it.”

Dougherty got elected to the position and Henon held off on introducing of the legislation.

Perhaps the richest detail comes in response to an editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer criticizing the close relationship between Dougherty and Henon. How close? The indictment describes how Dougherty told Henon he’d dictate a response to his spokesperson, written to appear that it was from Henon, saying Henon was an independent public servant who barely talked to Dougherty.

Trust the process?

Add to all of this Tuesday’s indictment [pdf] of James Moylan, Dougherty’s chiropractor and a Pennsport civic leader, for embezzlement. Mayor Jim Kenney appointed Moylan to run his Zoning Board of Adjustment in 2016, handing the plum job of controlling of city’s development process to a Dougherty crony, only to ask for his resignation in light of an FBI raid on his office and home several months later. The motivator for Moylan’s time at the ZBA seemed to be a desire to keep development — and construction jobs — steadily flowing.

These indictments collectively fuel the worst suspicions about Dougherty’s outsize influence on Philadelphia’s built environment politics, about who in his network benefits and how.

Philadelphia has been fighting to overcome its reputation as a city where development is notoriously hard, where unions are difficult and politicians expect mutual back-scratching. These are the very things that scared off out-of-town developers for years – a tide that only recently started turning.

This week’s indictments show how intact Philadelphia’s odiously transactional development politics remain, and how easy it is to betray the public trust. We will see how these cases unfold in court. For now, we have an astonishing window into what greases and grinds this city’s gears, and it should mortify us all.

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

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