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Bobby Henon’s lawyer grills FBI agent over wiretaps in bribery trial

Henon’s lawyer attempted to paint the councilmember — and his Local 98 union paycheck — as no different than any of his colleagues on Council who also do outside work.

Councilperson Bobby Henon, left and his lawyer Brian McMonagle leave the Federal Courthouse in Philadelphia after jury selection in his bribery trial on Monday.
Councilperson Bobby Henon, left and his lawyer Brian McMonagle leave the Federal Courthouse in Philadelphia after jury selection in his bribery trial on Monday.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Facing off in court Thursday against the FBI agent whose case now threatens to put his client in prison, Bobby Henon’s lawyer posed a question that so far has served as a backbone of the Philadelphia city councilmember’s defense.

“Receiving a salary from a union isn’t a crime, is it?” attorney Brian J. McMonagle asked as he cross-examined Special Agent Jason Blake, who was on the witness stand for a third day in Henon’s federal bribery trial. “If you’re not being bribed to do something, it’s not a crime?”

Blake responded: “That’s correct.”

And as the government wrapped up the first week of its case against Henon and codefendant labor leader John J. Dougherty, McMonagle pushed to keep that question at the forefront of the proceedings.

» READ MORE: As it happened: Soda tax, MRI machines at CHOP, and union tensions surface in Dougherty-Henon bribery trial testimony

He likened Henon to others on Council with income from outside employment — like Councilmember Brian J. O’Neill, who works as a lawyer for a Center City law firm, or Allan Domb, who makes money from his real estate holdings.

Prosecutors contend that in Henon’s case, his $70,000-a-year income from Dougherty’s union, Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, was a way for the union chief to essentially put the councilmember on retainer to see to his interests on Council.

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

And when Assistant U.S. Attorney Bea Witzleben questioned Blake later, she balked at those comparisons.

“Do you have any evidence that any of those [councilmembers] used their City Council staff to benefit their outside employers?” she asked. “[Did they] inject their outside employer into City Council business?”

Still, in questioning witnesses throughout the day, McMonagle stressed his own interpretation of what exactly Henon did — and perhaps more important, did not do — to earn his Local 98 money.

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

Though prosecutors have described Henon’s union role as essentially a “do-nothing” job, McMonagle pushed back in his cross-examination of Blake, noting that Henon served as the union’s delegate to the AFL-CIO and worked as a liaison with the Building Trades Council. He also helped to whip votes in Dougherty’s bid to lead the latter organization in 2015 — all separate, McMonagle said, from his work on City Council.

Henon may have been caught on the wire discussing several actions he could take as a councilmember that would benefit the union leader — like introducing legislation to update the city’s plumbing code or to tax soda in 2015 to spite other unions with which Dougherty was feuding. But in both cases, McMonagle noted, Henon never followed through.

And in the case of the soda tax, he said, Henon had his own reasons to back the idea.

Henon’s former communications director, Eric Horvath, testified Thursday about work he did on talking points and a TV ad supporting the soda tax the same month that Henon and Dougherty were caught on a wire gleefully plotting about using the tax to strike a blow against the Teamsters union, which opposed it.

But in cross-examination, McMonagle introduced an email chain showing Horvath and Courtney Voss, Henon’s chief of staff, were working on the soda idea at least a month before the incident that sparked Dougherty’s desire for revenge.

“Neither Mr. Henon nor Ms. Voss ever mentioned Mr. Dougherty in relation to the ad,” Horvath told FBI agents in a witness statement from earlier this year that was read in court. “Mr. Henon just thought it was a good idea to do this.”

And while Henon never introduced his own soda tax bill in 2015, he voted for Mayor Jim Kenney’s version the next year. He did it, McMonagle has argued, because he supported the idea for policy reasons.

“It made a lot of money for the city, didn’t it?” McMonagle asked while questioning Blake. “Kenney wanted it.”

As the government’s case continued, prosecutors zeroed in on one of the specific instances where they say Henon used his Council powers to benefit Dougherty.

When Local 98 members discovered in August 2015 that nonunion workers were installing a $5.3 million MRI machine at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Dougherty told them to alert Henon, the councilmember with oversight over the Department of Licenses & Inspections.

In conversations played earlier in court, Henon, after learning about the incident, said he’d “walk over” to the licensing office.

Later, L&I inspector Robert Donsky was dispatched to investigate. He told jurors Thursday there was no issue with the workers at the site and no violations needed to be issued.

As a senior project manager for CHOP later testified, having manufacturer-approved installers do the job was a way to insure and preserve the machine’s multimillion-dollar warranty.

But when Donsky returned to L&I’s offices and briefed his supervisor on his findings, he said his boss conferred directly with then-L&I Commissioner Carlton Williams and then ordered him to shut the work down.

“Did you think that was right?” asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Barrett.

Donsky said no.

“Did you do [it]?” Barrett asked.

Donsky responded: “Yes.”

Testimony in the case will resume Tuesday.

Staff writer Sean Collins Walsh contributed to this article.

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.