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‘It’s been enormously difficult’: How Bobby Henon’s staff has run his office through a corruption trial

Prosecutors delivered closing arguments on Monday as an office full of staffers helped people with housing and doled out Thanksgiving turkeys.

Bobby Henon's Northeast Philly district office has been running throughout the councilmember's federal bribery trial.
Bobby Henon's Northeast Philly district office has been running throughout the councilmember's federal bribery trial.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

At trial in Philadelphia on Monday, federal prosecutors delivered closing arguments in their yearslong quest to put Councilmember Bobby Henon behind bars on charges of conspiracy, bribery, and fraud.

But at Henon’s district office, nine miles away in Northeast Philadelphia, people had other things on their minds.

Jean Ulmer’s main concern was a roof over her head. The 60-year-old woman and her 13-year-old Maltese service dog, Vinny, got forced out of their apartment in October. They’re now living in the apartment above Henon’s office while they look for permanent shelter — one of several families that Henon’s staff, alongside the Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network, has helped shelter upstairs throughout the pandemic.

“It was down to the wire and there was no one to help,” said Ulmer, who lives on a fixed income. “They made me feel like it was not my fault.”

Half a dozen others walked through the propped-open doors of the Torresdale Avenue storefront over the course of an hour: mothers picking up free diapers; families signing up for the office’s Thanksgiving turkey giveaway; others looking to grab just a box of mac-and-cheese and some canned fruit from the office food pantry.

It’s a snapshot of many modern legislative offices — less a place where bills are being drafted frantically around the clock, and more of a clearinghouse for all the city’s problems, a place where constituents can go to find bureaucratic know-how, traditional charity and, more often than not, another phone number to call.

But for the last month, Henon’s staff has been performing this work in the backdrop of the closely watched political corruption trial. Henon is trying to fend off claims that he sold his vote to labor leader John Dougherty. Prosecutors allege Henon, a longtime official with Dougherty’s union, Local 98, was kept on the payroll with a do-nothing job in exchange for doing Dougherty’s bidding on City Council.

The jury’s decision will not only affect the course of Henon’s fate — but also his staff’s.

“It’s been enormously difficult,” said Courtney Voss, 36, Henon’s chief of staff for nearly a decade. “But work doesn’t stop just because you got a federal trial.”

Voss testified in tears at trial last week, reliving everything from her romantic involvement with Henon to $3,000 in free windows she received from Henon — windows prosecutors say were a bribe from the then chair of the Philadelphia Parking Authority. . Voss also spoke about the “traumatic” journey since federal agents first raided Henon’s City Hall and district offices in 2016.

Since then, several staffers have left, including some who have since testified at trial.

Still, some say the trial month hasn’t been as much as an ordeal has they had thought.

“COVID was harder on us,” said Meghan Petroski, 26, Henon’s executive assistant, noting that they have kept the office open since the beginning of the pandemic.

Supporters also stop by regularly to say they have Henon’s back. And the revolving door of constituents — many of whom aren’t even aware of the events at the U.S. Courthouse downtown — keeps things busy in Tacony.

Legislative director John Perzel Jr. fields a phone call from a women who has been living in a Motel 6, unable to find a landlord who will accept her subsidized housing voucher. He runs the case by Voss, even though there appears to be little they can do.

The number of housing problems has skyrocketed since the eviction moratorium expired last summer, Perzel says, tapping a stack of manila files with constituent cases on his desk. It’s mainly seniors living on fixed incomes.

”There’s nowhere for them to go,” the 36-year-old Perzel said.

On normal days, Henon is in and out of the district headquarters. But his basement office sits empty now. He has missed Council meetings and other routinely scheduled events since the trial began in early October.

But Henon’s still working, Voss says. The two will debrief at 7:30 a.m. on the day’s issues, before Henon heads to the federal courthouse for the day. They debrief again after trial in the evening to talk about constituent and legislative matters.

“Bobby is not the only person having a hard time,” Voss said. “Not having a house, not being able to afford diapers ... that’s way harder than whatever Bobby is going through.”

Jury deliberations at the trial were expected to begin Tuesday.

If Henon is convicted, staff members said they would keep working. He would have until sentencing to give up his Council seat.

And what will they do if he is acquitted? Said Michele O’Hare, Henon’s director of constituent services for nearly a decade: “Celebrate.”