Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

John Dougherty and Bobby Henon’s trial opens with dueling visions of the ties between the labor leader and Philly Councilmember

The battle to define John Dougherty and Bobby Henon for the jury that will ultimately decide their fate began in court Tuesday as lawyers delivered opening statements in the case.

John Dougherty speaks to reporters outside the James A. Byrne United States Courthouse in Center City on Tuesday.
John Dougherty speaks to reporters outside the James A. Byrne United States Courthouse in Center City on Tuesday.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

The battle to define John Dougherty and Bobby Henon for the jury that will ultimately decide their fate began Tuesday with lawyers offering dueling portraits of the relationship between the labor leader and the city councilmember — and what each man expected from the other.

Prosecutors, in their opening pitch to the panel, characterized the two as partners in a “corrupt agreement,” in which Dougherty bought the powers of Henon’s elected office with a stream of bribes, including a $70,000-a-year union salary, and then used it to bend city government to his whims.

“He wanted … an insider — someone on City Council that would do what he wanted him to do,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Bea Witzleben said. “All Henon had to do to keep those benefits flowing … [was] to use his official duties to please John Dougherty.”

The defense countered, casting Dougherty and Henon as trusted allies, Davids fighting for blue-collar workers against the Goliaths at City Hall — and in court. As Henon’s lawyer Brian J. McMonagle told it, they “dreamed that a union of electricians could be one of the most powerful forces in the city.”

But amid those contrasting impressions offered on the first day of testimony in Dougherty and Henon’s federal bribery trial, there was at least one thing on which both sides agreed: the sheer scope of influence that Dougherty has amassed and exerted over government officials, other union leaders, and the affairs of the city in his nearly three decades leading one of Philadelphia’s most powerful unions.

“He’s often bombastic. He’s often cocky. At times he’s profane,” his lawyer Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. told jurors. “But through his single-minded, almost, almost obsessive focus, he grew Local 98 [of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers] into a powerhouse.”

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

Jurors got their first glimpse of Dougherty’s clout in action later Tuesday, as prosecutors called their first witness, FBI Special Agent Jason Blake, and began introducing recorded clips from their 16-month wiretap of Dougherty’s phones.

The excerpts — 154 in all — are expected to make up the bulk of the evidence in the government’s case. Witzleben warned jurors that they would hear the voices of several high-profile figures swept up in the wiretap, including Mayor Jim Kenney, and that, at times, the language would be coarse — a warning at which Hockeimer later scoffed.

“This is how union guys talk,” he said. “They’re not in the 50th-floor offices with their Ivy League degrees.”

» READ MORE: Live coverage of of the first day of testimony on John Dougherty and Bobby Henon's trial

Excerpts played in court Tuesday centered on Dougherty’s efforts to whip votes for his 2015 election as head of the Building & Construction Trades Council — an umbrella organization made up of the heads of the city’s trade unions — using every contact and lever of power within his reach.

Prosecutors allege that Dougherty sought to use a proposed update to the city’s plumbing code as leverage to win the support from the plumbers’ union and leaned on Henon to delay a vote on the legislation until he got what he needed.

“F— the plumbers. But I don’t want to screw Jimmy either,” Henon replied, referring to Kenney in a recorded conversation with Dougherty that year.

“We’ve got to protect ourselves,” Dougherty responded. “Jimmy will worry about it later.”

At the time, Kenney was running for mayor, with the backing of Dougherty and Henon, and Dougherty hoped Henon would push off the plumbing code legislation until sometime after the new mayor was sworn into office. He apprised Kenney of the plan in another recorded phone call played Tuesday.

“Is there something you need me to do?” Kenney asked about the code issue.

“No,” Dougherty replied, clarifying that Henon would handle the delay.

The 2015 bargaining over the plumbing code is just one of the official actions that prosecutors intend to highlight throughout the trial that they say show Henon working on Dougherty’s behalf.

They’ve also accused him of holding up the city’s 2016 renegotiation of Comcast’s franchise agreement at the union leader’s request, squashing an audit of the Philadelphia Parking Authority to benefit Dougherty’s allies, using his influence over the Department of Licenses & Inspections to halt the installation by nonunion contractors of MRI machines at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and even threatening to convene public hearings to investigate a towing company that towed Dougherty’s car in 2015.

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

The defense offered counter-explanations to each of those incidents during its opening statements Tuesday — most of which boiled down to Henon’s acting not on Dougherty’s behalf but on behalf of the union members he pledged to represent when he first ran for office in 2011.

McMonagle balked, for instance, at the suggestion that Henon backed Kenney’s signature soda tax in 2016 to suit Dougherty, who saw it as a way to strike a blow against the rival Teamsters union.

“Bobby Henon didn’t pass the soda tax because of John Dougherty,” he said. “He passed it because it was good governance.”

As for the salary Henon continued to collect from Local 98 even after his election to Council, McMonagle argued it was far from unusual and was hardly compensation for what prosecutors have described as a “do-nothing” job.

He pointed to other members of Council who hold outside employment in addition to their full-time, $130,000-a-year elected jobs and noted that Henon consistently declared that income, as required, on financial disclosure forms. He likened Henon to Steven M. Sweeney, a union ironworker and president of the New Jersey State Senate, who continues to collect a salary from his local while serving in a public role.

“This is a bribery case without a bribe,” he said. “Bobby Henon never took a bribe from John Dougherty. ... He rolled up his sleeves and went to work, not for himself, but for the people of his city.”

Testimony in the case is expected to resume Wednesday.

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.