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At trial, feds say Councilmember Bobby Henon sought campaign cash for helping a union in its spat with Verizon

But Henon's defense maintains he had serious concerns about Verizon's treatment of its union workforce and its ability to meet the obligations of its contract with the city.

Philadelphia City Councilmember Bobby Henon  leaves the federal courthouse in Center City after jury selection in his bribery trial on Oct. 4
Philadelphia City Councilmember Bobby Henon leaves the federal courthouse in Center City after jury selection in his bribery trial on Oct. 4Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

In 2015, Philadelphia City Councilmember Bobby Henon plotted with a union official to publicly embarrass Verizon with Council hearings they hoped would pressure the telecommunications giant into making concessions in an ongoing labor dispute, federal wiretap recordings show.

But as the focus of his federal bribery trial shifted to that incident Wednesday, the question put before jurors was whether any of it was a crime.

Prosecutors maintain Henon’s assistance came at a price: $13,000 in campaign contributions they say he sought in exchange for his help from the Communications Workers of America. It is one of the few allegations in their bribery case against Henon that does not involve his codefendant, labor leader John Dougherty, head of the politically powerful Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical workers.

“CWA would give Councilman Henon a large contribution,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Bea Witzleben said in her opening remarks to jurors last week. “Henon would help CWA in a private labor negotiation with Verizon.”

» READ MORE: Union official and councilman at the same time, Bobby Henon crossed the line, prosecutors say

But defense lawyers countered, arguing Wednesday that Henon, an avowedly pro-union official, had valid concerns about Verizon’s ability to meet the demands of its contracts with the city and how it was treating its workforce — treatment that eventually led CWA members to strike.

Henon’s discussions about campaign cash were completely separate, his attorney Brian J. McMonagle said.

“The purpose of the hearing was to highlight everyone there was out of work,” he said, as well as “bringing Verizon to task.”

» READ MORE: As it happened: Bobby Henon’s role in union dispute with Verizon focus of bribery trial testimony

By late 2015, Verizon was nearing its deadline for a seven-year project to expand its FiOS network throughout Philadelphia, while also juggling a long-running contract dispute with the workforce it relied upon to complete it, largely represented by the CWA.

In wiretapped phone conversations played for jurors Wednesday, James Gardler, president of CWA Local 1300, approached Henon with an idea that he believed might help tip the fight in favor of organized labor: a public hearing that would raise uncomfortable questions about whether Verizon was in a position to complete the project by the city-mandated deadlines.

“The whole point of doing this is to put some pressure on them with the problems we’re having at the bargaining table,” Gardler told Henon in one call in late 2015.

And while Henon, throughout the calls, was largely receptive to Gardler’s idea, the calls show he also had something else on his mind — money he hoped CWA could donate to his campaign.

At times, Henon was careful to keep his conversations with Gardler about the proposed hearing and his fund-raising efforts separate. In a series of October 2015 conversations, for instance, he made a point of hanging up after speaking with Gardler about Verizon and calling right back to make his pitch for donations.

But in other conversations played in court, that line became hazier.

Gardler called Henon later that month to tell him CWA’s PAC had agreed to give $5,000 to Henon’s campaign — a donation, the union chief said he sold to his board by saying he knew “what I can ask Bobby to do for us.”

“What I need,” he continued, “is … the Verizon piece of it.”

Four days after that donation, campaign records show, Henon emailed his staff to remind him about possibly scheduling a hearing on Verizon’s work.

When a Verizon representative later learned that the company could soon be brought before Council in contentious proceedings, “the color in his face changed,” Henon would later recall.

Gardler replied: “Good. That’s exactly what we wanted to get out of him.”

The hearing didn’t take place until April of the following year and by that time CWA had declared its strike. Other city officials who testified Wednesday questioned why such a hearing was necessary at all, with one going so far as to call it “ill-advised.”

At the time, said Steven Robertson — a deputy chief in the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology, which was the primary liaison with Verizon — the company had mostly met the deadlines mandated by its contract and only 15% of the project remained.

City staffers were still in the process of checking that Verizon’s work was in compliance with its contract obligation — a process that was complicated by the workers’ strike — and weren’t ready to publicly report on their findings.

“We were unclear what was to be accomplished” by a Council hearing, Robertson testified. “We would have preferred … to delay any type of hearing until after the verification process was complete.”

» READ MORE: John Dougherty and Bobby Henon bribery trial: What you need to know

Henon’s staff, Robertson said, didn’t ask for his office’s input. But had they, he added, “I probably would have said as respectfully as I could that a hearing at that point was stupid.”

Nevertheless, Robertson and other members of his office attended the proceeding. Henon, along with the other councilmembers in attendance, grilled Verizon officials on everything from their progress to the demands they were placing on their unionized workforce — all while a raucous crowd of CWA members booed and hissed from the gallery, at times interrupting testimony with chants of “CWA!”

Robertson told jurors the environment made him uncomfortable, given that it was ostensibly billed as focused on Verizon’s progress on meeting its deadlines — not the company’s dispute with the labor union.

“We were a little unsettled,” he recalled. “We didn’t want to be involved in or any part of a hearing that was involved in a labor dispute.”

McMonagle, in cross-examination, stressed that Henon was hardly alone in harboring concerns.

Councilmembers Brian J. O’Neill and Helen Gym also hammered the company throughout the proceeding, concerned that it was neglecting its obligations. Gym, in particular, accused Robertson’s office of becoming “tools of the corporations” that Council was seeking to hold accountable.

» READ MORE: Here are the Philly political players and groups likely to come up at the ‘Johnny Doc’ trial

Meanwhile, New York had released a critical audit of Verizon’s work expanding its network in that city that prompted questions about the company’s performance in its similar project here.

“It wasn’t just Councilman Henon asking questions about the delays,” McMonagle said.

When the trial continues Thursday, Henon’s defense will have the opportunity to question FBI Special Agent Jason Blake, the lead investigator in the case, about the phone calls with Gardler that prosecutors say link Henon’s campaign fund-raising efforts to the assistance he offered CWA.

But as Dougherty sat quietly listening to those wiretap recordings Wednesday — prosecution evidence that, for once, had nothing to do with him — one line drew chuckles from the courtroom gallery.

“I can tell you one thing,” Gardler told Henon in response to one of his attempts to hit the CWA up for contributions. “We definitely don’t have [Local] 98 money.”

Keep up with every development in John Dougherty and Bobby Henon’s case with our day-by-day recaps, live coverage, and explainer on everything you need to know about the case.