A day after a former City Council aide told a federal jury about a tense meeting in which labor leader John Dougherty pressured Comcast executives into a secret side deal amid the city’s 2015 franchise renegotiation with the cable giant, a former vice president for the company offered a vastly different account of those talks.
Testifying for the prosecution Wednesday, Kathleen Sullivan, who was then Comcast’s vice president for government affairs, described that closed-door session with Dougherty as “cordial.”
And while she agreed that the meeting had occurred outside of the public legislative process and that Dougherty pressed for more union work, she said she did not feel as if she had been delivered an ultimatum.
“It wasn’t like a demand,” she said. “Not ‘we need this, or else.’”
Her account — delivered from the witness stand as prosecutors closed out the third week of their federal bribery case against Dougherty and City Councilmember Bobby Henon — was distinctly different than one offered Tuesday by one of Henon’s aides.
Tom Holroyd, then a legislative assistant for the councilmember, said Dougherty led off the discussions with Comcast with an ominous anecdote about how he and his union held up the last franchise deal for four months in 1999 because he felt City Council wasn’t taking his union’s concerns seriously. The message, as Holroyd described it, was that Dougherty was willing to do it again unless his demands were met.
But in Sullivan’s recollection, the meeting began with “small talk — like a lot of it — and then we just got into what the issue was.”
Still, she agreed with Holroyd on two points key to the government’s case: that the meeting had occurred outside of the public legislative process and that she had left it under the impression that the success or failure of the franchise agreement hinged upon how Comcast responded to Dougherty’s request.
Dougherty, she said, wanted to ensure that Comcast would continue to live up to a handshake agreement it had struck with Dougherty’s union — Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers — the last time the company’s franchise agreement was up for a Council vote.
Loosely, its terms allowed Comcast to hire cheaper nonunion contractors for work building out its cable network under the city’s streets but required the company to hire Local 98 workers for jobs inside commercial buildings in Center City.
The deal had proven to be lucrative, compelling Comcast to employ hundreds of unionized workers over more than a decade. But by 2015 the cable company had grown into a telecommunications behemoth. Dougherty believed it had grown lax in keeping to the terms of that agreement and had allowed nonunion work to encroach on what had previously been Local 98′s territory.
He saw the 2015 renegotiation of the franchise deal — the agreement by which the city sets the terms under which it allows Comcast to build and maintain its network through publicly owned lands — as the opportunity to regain the upper hand.
And his private conversations showed he viewed Henon — who at that time was chair of Council’s Public Property Committee, which would oversee talks with Comcast — as his primary tool for getting what he wanted.
While Sullivan may have described her relationship with Dougherty as friendly, the union chief revealed what he really thought of her and her Comcast colleagues in private phone calls with Henon played for jurors Wednesday afternoon.
“I think they’re greedy, no-good m—,” he said in a wiretapped recording of a call with the councilmember just days before he met with Comcast execs.
Of Sullivan, specifically, Dougherty described her on another call with a Local 98 lobbyist as a “nice girl” but ultimately “worthless.”
Again and again, as Henon and his staff were working with other members of Council to hash out the terms of the franchise bill, Dougherty called to ensure that the councilmember — a former union electrician — saw things the same way that he did.
“We’ve got to send a message across the bow,” he told Henon in an October 2015 call.
He added that David L. Cohen, then Comcast’s senior executive vice president and now President Joe Biden’s pick to become ambassador to Canada, “was already feeling the heat.”
Dougherty told Henon the media giant was “a f— machine,” but that he, the councilman, owned the advantage.
“[I] wouldn’t give them anything. Everything you want, I’d get.”
Privately, though, Dougherty groused to other union officials that he worried Henon wouldn’t press hard enough for his union’s interests in the negotiations. And he boasted he could hold up the franchise vote again, as he’d done in 1999.
“I told Bobby [when he was elected] … that the only thing I needed was [him] on [the] Public Property [Committee] and the only thing I needed was to hold up Comcast,” he said. “It’s the only time I ever called him for anything I wanted.”
While cross-examining both Holroyd and Sullivan, Dougherty’s defense lawyer Henry E. Hockeimer has stressed that the union chief wasn’t doing anything underhanded and was only lobbying for the interest of union members like any of the dozens of other interest groups that sought to inject their own asks and concerns into the franchise agreement process.
Prosecutors have alleged that Dougherty wasn’t just seeking more union work. He was looking to steer that work to a particular company — New Jersey-based MJK Electric, a union contractor managed by a longtime friend, George Peltz.
Last year, Peltz pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 1½ years in prison for providing Dougherty nearly $57,000 in home and office improvements free of charge, in violation of federal union bribery laws.
Sullivan testified that even before her closed-door meeting with Dougherty, Henon had reached out to her about steering work to MJK.
Comcast had contracted with the company previously but found its rates to be significantly higher than some of the nonunion shops they used for other work.
Though neither Holroyd nor Sullivan described Dougherty as bringing up MJK during the closed-door meeting, a former Comcast construction director, Patrick Moser, told the jury the cable company did eventually end up adding MJK to its list of preferred vendors.
“I told [my superiors] having George Peltz and MJK on board would help with any problems we were having” in the franchise negotiations, he said.
Over the next three years, MJK took on big projects for the cable giant, including work wiring up the Wells Fargo Center for the 2016 Democratic National Convention, and billed for more than $9.4 million — charging rates Moser described as 200% to 1,000% higher than Comcast’s standard rates for the same work.
But under cross-examination, Moser acknowledged that MJK got the contract through a competitive bidding process with other union contractors because it had put in the lowest bid.
“So none of your bosses said, ‘You must hire MJK’?” Dougherty lawyer Hockeimer asked. “Mr. Henon never said, ‘You must hire MJK’? Mr. Dougherty never said, ‘You must hire MJK’?”
To all of those questions, Moser provided the same answer: No.
Testimony in the trial is expected to resume Monday.
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