Racketeering claim against Dougherty dropped, but suit may be revived

Labor leader John

Labor leader John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty applauds marchers in the Labor Day parade on Columbus Boulevard as they arrive at Penn's Landing on Sept. 5. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Allegations of racketeering in a civil lawsuit leveled against John Dougherty, the politically powerful boss of Philadelphia’s  electricians union, have been dropped — for now, that is. 

Filed in October, the federal suit claimed that a skirmish between Dougherty, better known as “Johnny Doc,” and private contractor Joshua Keesee was part of a wider pattern of intimidation and corruption pursued by Dougherty’s Local 98 union.

In response, Dougherty’s attorneys said Keesee exaggerated a sole street scuffle into a trumped-up trend of strong-arm tactics without proof.

Keesee claimed Dougherty engaged in a pattern of racketeering in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, also known as RICO.

The suit, according to Dougherty attorney Frederick Santarelli, is a “classic example of a litigant misusing and exploiting the federal RICO statute for ‘shock value.'”

But attorney Cliff Haines, who is representing Keesee, said although the suit was voluntarily withdrawn on Tuesday, his client’s legal row with Dougherty is far from over. Haines plans on refiling the suit after further investigation.

“If you went around and asked people about Johnny Doc, they wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, he’s a good Christian who gives regularly to the poor,’ what they’d say is, ‘He’s a bully who intimidates people,'” Haines said. “The concept of intimidation on the part of that particular union is pretty well established in Philadelphia.”

Had Haines unsuccessfully fought back against Santarelli’s motion to dismiss, Judge Michael Baylson could have thrown out the RICO suit forever, or dismissed with prejudice, in the legal parlance. Instead, Haines said, he would like to scrap the October suit altogether and take a brand new swing at it. 

“The civil suit is not going away,” Haines said. “The question is whether it’s going forward as an assault case against Mr. Dougherty, or an assault case with a RICO count added to it.”

Dougherty spokesman Frank Keel said the lawsuit’s withdrawal “speaks for itself,” but declined to comment further. 

In a January episode, non-union contractor Keesee said union representatives pelted him with bricks. In another incident, he said, Dougherty and others assaulted him at the disputed work site at Third and Reed streets in South Philadelphia.

The dispute erupted over a union sticker on the back window of Kessee’swork van. Dougherty demanded that it be removed, according to the suit, then used a racial slur against Keesee before breaking his nose.

Dougherty gave a different version of events, saying that Keesee incited the fight by swinging at one of his union members while he was removing the sticker. Dougherty further claimed that Keesee threatened his family before he threw the first punch at Dougherty.

A state grand jury is also investigating the altercations, but hasn’t decided whether to press criminal charges. That followed District Attorney Seth Williams’ referring the case to the state attorney general’s office after saying his political ties to Dougherty would present a conflict.

Federal authorities are also still digging into Dougherty’s affairs after raids on his home, business office and City Councilman Bobby Henon’s office in August, which attorney Haines said he’s following with keen interest.

“Who knows?” Haines said. “Maybe the FBI will be of some assistance to us.”

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