A federal judge on Wednesday rejected a request from labor leader John J. Dougherty and City Councilmember Bobby Henon to throw out the political bribery case against them before it reaches a jury, dashing the hopes of both men for a swift resolution to Philadelphia’s highest profile corruption cases in years.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey L. Schmehl sets the stage for Dougherty — one of the city’s most potent Democratic power brokers and head of the 4,700-member Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers — to stand trial with Henon, the union’s former political director and onetime majority leader on Council, in coming months.
“While Dougherty may challenge the sufficiency of the government’s evidence at a later stage,” the judge wrote in a 36-page opinion, “the allegations as set forth in the indictment do not justify dismissal now.”
It’s been more than a year since federal prosecutors accused the men in a bribery scheme stretching back to 2015.
But while prosecutors have portrayed Henon as a crooked politician, swept into office on a tide of union money only to sell his Council seat in exchange for a $73,000-a-year, no-show union job, Henon has consistently argued that he never hid his connection to “Johnny Doc” or his union, and regularly disclosed his salary on ethics filings, as required by city ordinance.
State law allows Henon to maintain outside employment on top of the $140,000 he made on Council before losing the position of majority leader in 2019. His income from Dougherty’s union was no different than that of any of the other members of Council who also hold outside jobs, his lawyer Brian J. McMonagle has said.
Dougherty’s lawyers have pushed back as well, describing the pressure the labor leader exerted on Henon as nothing more than “lawful lobbying” on matters of interest to the union. Defense attorney Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. has accused the government of failing to explain how a salary Henon had been receiving for more than a decade before he was elected to Council suddenly became a bribe once he became a public official.
Schmehl rejected those contentions Wednesday, finding that the government had laid out a coherent bribery case and that a jury should decide whether the evidence supports it.
“We respect the court’s decision and understand the low bar [for an indictment] to survive a motion to dismiss,” Hockeimer said in an email. We “will continue to make these arguments, now to a jury.”
Henon’s counsel declined to comment on the ruling.
Prosecutors have expressed confidence in their ability to prove that both men knew exactly why Dougherty’s union continued to write Henon checks after his election to Council in 2011. They have described the paychecks as essentially a retainer to buy Henon’s influence on government actions that benefitted Dougherty’s personal and professional interests.
But the salary was just one item in a stream of benefits that government lawyers have accused Dougherty of providing over the years, a list that also included tickets to sporting events valued at more than $11,000.
The indictment in the case is peppered with instances of what the labor leader purportedly received in exchange.
The councilman, it alleges, misused his oversight of key city committees to shut down nonunion installation projects at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and to squeeze Comcast Corp. executives to assure that a company favored by Dougherty’s union received lucrative contracts tied to Comcast’s renegotiation of its 15-year franchise agreement with the city in 2015
At Dougherty’s request, prosecutors say, Henon also squashed a 2016 audit of the Parking Authority that would have ascertained whether it could send more money to the Philadelphia schools, and convened Council hearings to investigate a company that towed the labor leader’s car.
Dougherty’s lawyers have argued that in all of those instances, the government has failed to link Henon’s Local 98 salary to the subsequent actions he took. They also have contended that none of the actions described fits the legal definition of an “official act” as outlined in federal public corruption statutes.
But Schmehl flatly dismissed that argument Wednesday, pointing out that Henon’s votes, introduction of legislation and hearings, and threats to launch Council probes clearly fit the definition of an official act by an elected officeholder.
“These acts … are clear instances of Henon making a decision, taking an action or agreeing to do so, on questions, matters, causes … proceedings or controversies,” Schmehl wrote.
In addition to the bribery counts, Dougherty faces embezzlement charges connected to $600,000 prosecutors say he and six other members of his union inner circle stole from Local 98 between 2015 and 2018.
Henon has not been charged in connection with those crimes and has asked the court, along with the other defendants, to separate the bribery and embezzlement accusations into separate trials. Schmehl has not ruled on that request.