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John Dougherty’s ties to Bobby Henon will take center stage as the Philly powerbrokers’ bribery trial begins

Jury selection is set to begin Monday. The outcome could shape city politics and organized labor for years.

Philadelphia City Councilmember Bobby Henon (left) and union leader John J. Dougherty (right) attend a lunch at the Palm Restaurant at the Bellevue in Center City in this 2011 file photo. Starting Monday, the men will stand trial together accused in a federal bribery and corruption case.
Philadelphia City Councilmember Bobby Henon (left) and union leader John J. Dougherty (right) attend a lunch at the Palm Restaurant at the Bellevue in Center City in this 2011 file photo. Starting Monday, the men will stand trial together accused in a federal bribery and corruption case.Read more / Staff File

Philadelphia City Councilmember Bobby Henon has called John Dougherty his “best friend,” a valued constituent and an unwavering ally over decades in the fight to advance the cause of organized labor in the city.

Federal prosecutors paint him as Henon’s puppet master — a mendacious labor leader, who through a steady stream of bribes, bought the councilmember’s vote and used the powers of his office to steamroll opponents and corruptly bend Philadelphia’s government to his will.

The question of which version of their relationship is closer to the truth will be put to a federal jury starting Monday, as their long-delayed bribery trial begins. And whatever the outcome, the verdict has the potential to shape the landscape of politics, organized labor, and the future of public corruption prosecutions in Philadelphia for years to come.

For Dougherty, the state’s most powerful labor leader widely known by the nickname “Johnny Doc,” the stakes couldn’t be higher. His liberty and his future as the head of both Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Philadelphia Building & Construction Trades Council are on the line.

A conviction for Henon — a union electrician and three-term incumbent on Council — could force him to trade in his City Hall office for the confines of a prison cell.

But acquittals would deliver a stinging rebuke to a U.S. Attorney’s Office with a recent record of big swings and victories in corruption cases against U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, Sheriff John Green, and Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski.

And in Dougherty, prosecutors have set their sights on one of their biggest targets yet.

In the nearly three decades he’s led Local 98, he’s transformed the 4,700-member organization into a political powerhouse and the largest independent source of campaign money in the state. Union fund-raising and manpower have helped elect mayors — including Jim Kenney — and City Council members like Henon as well as county commissioners, members of Congress, state legislators, governors, and more than 60 judges, including the union leader’s brother, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty.

And with more than 100 potential jurors summoned to show up Monday as the jury selection process begins, both sides appear to like their odds.

Prosecutors have projected confidence in recent court filings that they can prove that with Eagles tickets and an annual union salary of more than $70,000, Dougherty bought Henon’s loyalty, then used him as a vise to squeeze a wide array of foes — including Comcast Corp., the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, rival unions, and even a tow-truck driver who tried to haul away his car.

» READ MORE: How prosecutors say Johnny Doc used his union's money to weaponize a councilman and corruptly bend the government to his whims

Defense lawyers, meanwhile, have balked at the government’s case, calling it a “feeble attempt at criminalizing the legislative process.” At worst, they maintain, Henon’s salary posed a conflict of interest, not a crime. And if anything, they argue, the piles of evidence the government spent years amassing show nothing more than “normal and lawful lobbying of a City Council member.”

“There is nothing out of the ordinary, let alone unlawful, about Mr. Henon’s continued employment with Local 98,” Dougherty’s attorney Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. wrote in recent court filings. “Nothing about his employment arrangement amounts to bribery.”

The trial will serve as the culmination of what Dougherty’s attorneys have described as a relentless effort over more than a decade to bring their client down. They’ve accused prosecutors of piling on an ever-lengthening list of accusations and charges to paper over weaknesses in their case.

The proceedings set to begin Monday are only the first of a potential three-round bout between him and the federal government. Last year, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey L. Schmehl, who will preside over the trial, opted to split prosecutors’ original 116-count case against Dougherty into two.

The first trial will focus solely on the union chief’s relationship with Henon. Another trial is set to follow for Dougherty and five other union officials, who are accused of embezzling more than $600,000 from the union coffers.

» READ MORE: For leader John Dougherty, union-paid generosity began at home

The government applied even more pressure earlier this year with a second indictment charging Dougherty and his nephew with threatening a union contractor and with a civil suit brought by the Department of Labor seeking to void his union’s most recent elections.

“This isn’t a prosecution,” Dougherty spokesperson Frank Keel declared in March as the cases began to pile up. “It’s a persecution.”

But as much as the trial will finally put the government’s case against Dougherty and Henon to the test, it will also test the federal court system’s efforts to return to some semblance of normalcy after nearly two years of scaled-back operations due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As recently as weeks ago, 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.

Dougherty and Henon’s trial, by contrast, is expected to last four to six weeks, involve dozens of witnesses and attract much more public and media interest than any proceeding the court system has mounted in the two years since both men were charged.

COVID precautions will remain in effect with a cap of 45 masked spectators allowed in both the 12th-floor courtroom where the trial will play out and an overflow room set up to allow for social distancing.

“We want to try this case — as I’ve said many times — efficiently, fairly, and as safely as possible,” Schmehl said at a recent hearing.

As for what that trial will look like, many of the details remain to be filled in.

Both sides have spent the last few weeks hunkered down, quietly preparing their cases. They declined to comment in advance of the proceedings.

And investigators have acknowledged past difficulties in amassing evidence against Dougherty.

In a 2016 search warrant affidavit, the FBI recounted trying to insinuate an undercover agent into Local 98′s ranks to get close to Dougherty two years earlier. The man was rebuffed, and Dougherty insisted he speak only to his subordinates.

A handful of Local 98 members have also offered over the years to assist investigators in prosecuting Dougherty, the affidavit said. But all of them were so far out of his inner circle that any information they could provide had only limited value.

Even FBI efforts to covertly dig through Dougherty’s trash proved unsuccessful. For years, the affidavit said, he’s had his waste removed on a near-daily basis from his South Philadelphia home and taken to a dumpster at Local 98′s Spring Garden headquarters — one locked behind a fence and monitored by security cameras.

Much of the government’s evidence in this case is likely to come from a series of 2016 search warrants executed on Dougherty’s home, Henon’s City Hall office, and more than a dozen other sites affiliated with the union or its allies as well as from hours of wiretap recordings of Dougherty’s phone calls between April 2015 and August 2016.

The recordings, in particular, are likely to serve as the backbone of the government’s case.

The indictment is rife with quoted conversations between the two men as they negotiated what stance the councilmember should take on issues ranging from audits of the Philadelphia Parking Authority to matters affecting other unions, like plumbing code legislation.

Prosecutors say Dougherty used Henon to pressure Comcast to steer nearly $2 million worth of electrical work to a favored union contractor as the media conglomerate negotiated the renewal of the city’s 15-year cable lease with the city in 2015. The firm’s rates were more than 125% higher than those for the nonunion workers Comcast had previously employed.

“This is why you are over there, that’s why we raised $600,000 [in contributions to Henon’s campaign],” Dougherty allegedly told the councilmember in a conversation that year.

Henon promised Dougherty that he would delay Comcast’s renewal agreement until the union boss got what he wanted.

“I don’t give a f — about anybody, all right, but [expletive] you and us,” Henon replied.

Wire recordings also captured Dougherty urging Henon to use his sway over the Department of Licenses & Inspections to stop nonunion workers from installing MRI machines at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. At Dougherty’s request, Henon also allegedly helped squash a 2016 audit of the PPA that would have determined whether it should be sending more money to Philly schools.

» READ MORE: Sources in Johnny Doc case: PPA board chair Joe Ashdale bribed councilman to squash agency audit

And when Dougherty decided to throw his weight behind Kenney’s signature soda tax in 2016 and urged Henon, too, to support it, he was driven, the recordings suggest, by a desire for revenge against the Teamsters union, which opposed the bill and had run a TV ad portraying Dougherty in a negative light.

When representatives from the Mayor’s Office briefed Dougherty on the tax’s potential public health benefits, authorities allege, he scoffed: “You don’t have to explain to me. I don’t give a f—.”

» READ MORE: Johnny Doc case: Which city councilman needed a soda tax ‘hug’? Kenyatta Johnson, sources say.

The defense has signaled it intends to counter those recordings at trial by arguing that all they show are two men who shared a mutual interest in advancing the cause of organized labor in the city.

Henon made no secret while running for Council of his intention to be a pro-labor candidate, his attorney Brian J. McMonagle has argued. It’s only natural, he has said, that the councilmember and the most powerful union leader in the city would share a common cause.

As for the salary Local 98 continued to pay Henon after he secured his Council seat, the defense has argued that prosecutors have failed to specifically link those wages to any specific action he took on Council.

They note Henon joined Local 98 decades ago as a seasonal worker and rose through its ranks — from apprentice, to foreman, to business agent, then political director — and was on the union’s payroll long before he considered his first run for public office in 2011.

His salary is no more a bribe, McMonagle argued at a recent court hearing, than it is for any of the seven other members of Council who hold outside employment. City ethics rules allow Council members to hold such posts as long as they disclose them on legally mandated filings — something Henon routinely did.

» READ MORE: Can a paycheck be a bribe? Johnny Doc’s lawyers say no.

“What has been alleged here is simply not a crime, and if it is, then a lot of people — any official that is on a salary for an outside entity — better head for the hills,” McMonagle said. “Where’s the fraud? Where’s the dishonesty? Where’s the deceit?”

Come Monday, it will be up to prosecutors to prove they have the answers to those questions.