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U.S. Labor Dept. sues to void Local 98 leadership election, alleging Johnny Doc and others threatened union rivals

“It’ll be a long three years if you lose,” Dougherty is accused of telling one potential opposition candidate for an executive board post. The suit, if successful, would force a new union vote.

John Dougherty leaves the James A. Byrne Federal Courthouse in Philadelphia on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019.
John Dougherty leaves the James A. Byrne Federal Courthouse in Philadelphia on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

The U.S. Department of Labor sued to void the most recent election of the city’s politically powerful electrician’s union Friday, saying labor leader John J. Dougherty and his allies had threatened those who had considered challenging them for leadership positions.

In a complaint filed in federal court in Philadelphia, government lawyers asked a judge to force Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to hold a new vote for several top posts. The suit, if successful, would not bar the current officeholders from running for their posts again.

It followed an October FBI raid on the union’s Spring Garden offices during which agents sought evidence of similar claims that the union’s top officials had intimidated rivals who questioned Dougherty’s leadership after his 2019 indictment on bribery and embezzlement charges.

“Not only were members in good standing allegedly intimidated out of exercising their right to seek union office, but the entire Local 98 membership was allegedly denied its right to nominate and vote for candidates of its choosing,” said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams, whose office brought that indictment and is representing the Labor Department in Friday’s suit.

The lawsuit comes at afraught moment for Dougherty, better known by his nickname “Johnny Doc,” and the roughly 4,000-member union he has led for nearly three decades. Under his management, it has grown into one of the most influential labor organizations in the state, with generous campaign spending and mobilization that has helped place dozens of mostly Democratic elected officials and government functionaries into their positions.

He has persistently denied any wrongdoing, but a trial later this year on the criminal charges threatens to send him to prison.

Union spokesperson Frank Keel panned the new civil suit, noting that it was filed against a politically active union in the waning days of the Trump administration.

“John and the other duly elected Local 98 officers want to have an election and look forward to their day in court,” it read. “The union has never been stronger than it is currently, which is the reason no one ran against the incumbent team.”

The 13-page complaint, however, offered another explanation for the lack of alternate candidates.

Union leaders launched a pressure campaign, it alleged, meant to scare three potential contenders for executive positions out of the race. All of them said they were threatened with being denied future work if they kept up their efforts.

“It’ll be a long three years if you lose,” Dougherty is accused of telling one opposition candidate, Timothy McConnell. “If you ain’t with me, you’re against me.”

Within days, the lawsuit claims, Dougherty ally and Philadelphia Democratic Ward Leader Brian Eddis passed on another message, telling a friend of McConnell’s he “did not want to see anything happen to” him.

Other potential challengers reported being intimidated by Dougherty’s supporters outside of a nomination meeting or receiving messages purportedly from Dougherty himself, and passed through intermediaries, that their “careers would be finished” if they ran.

All three ended their candidacies before the official nomination deadline.

Union leadership elections are strictly governed by federal laws that require that any member of a union can run for its leadership without interference or threats of reprisal.

And Local 98 has previously drawn government scrutiny for its management of competitive internal races.

In 2014, the union signed a compliance agreement with the Labor Department after investigators determined union leaders had improperly disqualified eligible candidates for office. Even afterward, the potential candidates involved in that probe said they were blackballed and denied work for nearly two years, government lawyers said Friday.

The latest Labor Department investigation began after Charles Battle, a potential challenger to union president Brian Burrows, filed a complaint with the government in August — around the same time that the union sued him and his wife for defamation in Common Pleas Court.

That suit accused the Battles of running the anonymous website, which became a clearinghouse for disaffected Local 98 members to post complaints about Dougherty and his inner circle.

“The same guy who paid for and is responsible for an anonymous, malicious, sexually harassing website that exists solely to smear John Dougherty, other Local 98 officers, and, worse, our family members, is the one behind [the Labor Department] lawsuit,” Keel said. “This is his M.O. — when things don’t go his way, run to the government.”

Battle’s lawyer, Clifford E. Haines, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.

After the FBI raid in October he said: “Regrettably, the conduct of Local 98 with respect to Mr. Battle is not something new. There is a reason its membership will only speak out anonymously.”

Dougherty’s trial in the federal bribery and embezzlement case is scheduled for March. He is accused of bribing Philadelphia City Councilmember Bobby Henon, a longtime Local 98 member, with a salary to buy his advocacy on matters of interest to Dougherty and the union he represents. Both men have denied the charges.

Dougherty also stands accused of embezzling more than $600,000 from Local 98′s coffers along with five other union officials and allies.