Exuding the confidence that has propelled him to the top of Philadelphia’s labor and political scenes, John J. Dougherty arrived for the start of his federal bribery and corruption trial on Monday predicting from the outset that he and codefendant Philadelphia Councilmember Bobby Henon would be acquitted.
Flanked by supporters, he stopped outside the courthouse to proclaim his innocence to a crowd of waiting TV cameras. He likened the FBI’s tactics to that of an oppressive Russian regime. And he teased that, if he had anything to say about it, he’d be testifying in his own defense.
“I’ve had zero crimes,” he said, punctuating his remark with an emphatic hand gesture. “So, this is a relief. I can’t wait to get this done.”
But inside, the process had only just begun.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers spent the day whittling down a group of 100 prospective jurors to the five men and seven women ultimately chosen for the panel that will decide Dougherty’s and Henon’s fates.
Among them are two teachers, an Air Force veteran, and some members of other unions drawn from across the Philadelphia region. The jurors range from their 20s to retirement age.
U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Schmehl sent them home to return — along with six alternate jurors — for opening arguments in the case Tuesday morning
The proceedings they will take in over the next five to six weeks — and the verdict they’ll aim to deliver — have the potential to shape the landscape of Philadelphia politics, organized labor, and public corruption prosecutions for years to come.
Prosecutors say Dougherty, the longtime head of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and a political kingmaker in Philadelphia and across the state, effectively paid to put Henon on Council and then used the powers of his office to steamroll a wide array of personal and professional foes.
In exchange, they maintain, Dougherty’s union paid Henon — a former union electrician elected to Council in 2011 on a wave of union money and support — a salary of more than $70,000 a year.
Both men have consistently denied any wrongdoing and accused the government of attempting to make federal crimes out of Henon’s lawful employment with the union and Dougherty’s routine lobbying of an elected official who shared his pro-union views.
Dougherty has condemned the FBI’s efforts to surveil him, wiretap his phones, and build a case against him with multiple investigations that have lasted over a decade.
“After 25 years, they’ve probably spent $25 million,” he said Monday. “They listened to every one of my phone calls. … They put cameras up every place I go. It’s like I was living in Russia.”
For his part, Henon said little as he arrived at the courthouse Monday with his attorney Brian J. McMonagle by his side.
And as the questioning of potential jurors began, it quickly became clear that despite the Councilmember’s elected position, Dougherty and his union held the center of gravity in the room.
Several jurors reported either having met the union leader or knowing people close to him. One raised his hand, acknowledging he was a Local 98 business agent. He told the judge he felt he could still judge the case fairly.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand how unions work in this country,” he said.
One potential juror identified himself as an IBEW member in Lehigh County, while another told the judge he worked as a teacher under Dougherty’s daughter, who runs the union’s Philadelphia-based charter school.
None of them made the final cut.
Other potential panelists expressed concern about the conditions under which the proceedings were taking place.
The trial will be the first significant test of the federal court’s efforts to return to some semblance of normalcy after nearly two years of scaled-back operations due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Up until last month, only a limited number of trials — typically lasting no more than a few days and involving a single defendant and a handful of witnesses — had been allowed to proceed.
The pool of roughly 100 prospective jurors gathered Monday — masked and spaced several feet apart in a large ceremonial courtroom — was the largest gathering of people the courthouse had seen since early 2020.
Still, one potential juror told the judge, “I’m not so comfortable with the [social] distancing in this room.”
Schmehl acknowledged the unusual circumstances under which the trial would take place but assured the jurors precautions would be taken such as limiting the number of people allowed in the courtroom each day.
“I understand this isn’t going to be easy. This isn’t normally how we select jury,” he said. “But we’re going to do everything we can to try this case safely and efficiently.”
And, Dougherty, for one, said he was eager to get started.
“I’m pretty upbeat about it,” he paused to tell reporters as he left the courthouse at the end of the day. “You know, I expect to come out of here with a nice significant win.”
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