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Can a paycheck be a bribe? Johnny Doc’s lawyers say no, push to dismiss case involving Council member Henon.

In their first courtroom attack on the high-profile corruption case, lawyers for John J. Dougherty pushed back against prosecution claims that the salary that the labor leader's union paid Philadelphia City Councilman Bobby Henon was intended as a bribe.

John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty, head of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, speaks to reporters as he departs the federal courthouse on Feb. 1, 2019, in Philadelphia. He has pleaded not guilty in a bribery and embezzlement case that reaches City Hall.
John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty, head of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, speaks to reporters as he departs the federal courthouse on Feb. 1, 2019, in Philadelphia. He has pleaded not guilty in a bribery and embezzlement case that reaches City Hall.Read moreDavid Swanson / File Photograph

Defense lawyers urged a federal judge Monday to throw out corruption charges against labor leader John J. Dougherty, calling allegations that he bought Philadelphia City Councilman Bobby Henon’s vote on key issues with a union salary ludicrous and “legally deficient.”

While prosecutors have portrayed Henon as a crooked politician who sold his Council seat in exchange for a $73,000-a-year union job, the attorneys maintained that state law allows for outside employment. Henon’s income from Dougherty’s union was no different than that of any of the eight other members of Council who hold other jobs, said his lawyer, Brian J. McMonagle.

“What has been alleged here is simply not a crime,” McMonagle argued during a hearing in Philadelphia. “If it is, then a lot of people — any official that is on a salary from an outside entity — better head for the hills.”

Meanwhile, Dougherty’s lawyers accused the government of conflating the labor leader with the union that actually cut Henon’s checks and failing to explain how a salary Henon had been receiving for more than a decade became a bribe once he was elected to public office.

“There was no bargain struck," attorney Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. said. “There was no putting him on the payroll. He was on the payroll. The stream of benefits [cited in the indictment] is two cherry-picked years of [a salary] that he had been making since 2003.”

What U.S. District Judge Jeffrey L. Schmehl makes of those arguments could dramatically shape the scope of federal prosecutors’ highest-profile corruption case in recent years. The judge did not rule Monday, but is expected to decide in coming weeks whether to allow the charges to proceed to trial.

Both Dougherty — the longtime business manager of the politically influential International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, who is known widely as “Johnny Doc” — and Henon, the union’s former political director, have denied wrongdoing and said they have no plans to resign. They were indicted in January with six other union officials and allies in a case that also alleged misspending of union funds.

>>> READ MORE: Johnny Doc indictment: Who’s indicted and what are the charges?

The wrangling in court Monday focused entirely on the relationship between the two men and whether a salary can be considered a bribe under federal anti-corruption laws.

Prosecutors expressed confidence in their ability to prove that both men knew exactly why Dougherty’s union continued to write Henon’s checks after he was elected to Council in 2011. The salary, they said, effectively put the councilman on retainer to advance government actions that benefited Dougherty’s personal and professional interests.

“If it’s given with [corrupt] intent, and it’s received with that intent, then it’s illegal,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank R. Costello said.

But the defense shot back Monday, saying that if the government has proof, it’s not mentioned in the indictment. For instance, the document alleges Dougherty also influenced Henon’s votes with gifts of tickets to Eagles games. But Hockeimer noted Monday that prosecutors have not identified the number of tickets or games or how those gifts were meant to influence Henon’s acts as a councilman.

>> READ MORE: Feds say Johnny Doc used Local 98′s money to buy influence, power

The indictment is filled with accusations that the labor leader leaned on Henon again and again to back policies or actions that benefited his union.

At Dougherty’s request, it says, Henon forwarded a 2015 complaint that led to the shutdown of a nonunion contractor installing MRI machines at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. That year, Henon also allegedly put Dougherty in the room when Comcast renegotiated its franchise agreement with the city — a deal that resulted in a lucrative contract for a union contractor favored by Local 98.

Dougherty’s lawyers maintained Monday that in both instances, prosecutors have failed to link the requests made by the union boss or Henon’s subsequent actions to his Local 98 salary.

“Public officials are supposed to act on behalf of their constituents, they’re supposed to take calls, they’re supposed to … act on their concerns,” said Dougherty lawyer Terence Grugan. “Something more is required to make a bribery charge than a public official taking some action and having some link to a constituent.”

Henon’s lawyer, McMonagle, argued that the councilman never hid his connection to Dougherty or his union. He regularly disclosed his salary on ethics filings, as required under city ordinance.

“The world knew when they elected him — and continued to reelect him — that he was collecting it, and now prosecutors are going to call it a [corrupt] stream of benefits,” he said.

Henon does not feature in the indictment’s other main allegation — a claim that Dougherty and six others embezzled more than $600,000 from Local 98 between 2015 and 2016. The defendants charged in that portion of the case have asked Schmehl to hold a second trial, separating their charges from the corruption allegations involving Dougherty and Henon.

The judge has scheduled a hearing on that issue for next week.