As Philadelphia City Council was renegotiating its franchise agreement with Comcast in 2015 through a series of public hearings and votes, a deal of a separate sort was being hashed out behind closed doors, a top staffer to City Councilmember Bobby Henon told a federal jury Tuesday.
Tom Holroyd, a point person for Henon on the negotiations, testified that he was summoned, along with Comcast’s representatives, to a private meeting in the councilmember’s chambers led by labor leader John J. Dougherty.
The union chief opened the session, Holroyd recalled, with an ominous anecdote about a time, early in his career, when he and his union — Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers — showed up in force, drowned out opposition, and helped kill a bill when they felt City Council wasn’t taking them seriously.
He laid out a series of demands of the cable company, including that union contractors be hired for subsequent work.
“What exactly did you understand [Dougherty] was communicating in this meeting?” asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Bea Witzleben as Holroyd testified on the 10th day of Dougherty and Henon’s federal bribery trial.
The legislative aide responded: “That it could happen again with [the Comcast] bill.”
That meeting and discussions around the 2015 franchise agreement — which defines the terms under which the city allows Comcast the right to build out and operate its cable network on publicly owned lands — emerged as a central focus as prosecutors continued presenting their case that Henon granted Dougherty special favors in exchange for the more than $70,000-a-year salary he was collecting from the labor leader’s union.
But it wasn’t the only time Holroyd, one of the most senior Henon staffers to testify so far, described his boss as giving deference to Dougherty and Local 98.
On issues ranging from Henon’s interest in investigating a city towing company to his handling of various complaints about ongoing construction in the city, the union or its chief always seemed to be circling around the margins of the issue, Holroyd said.
For instance, when Holroyd questioned why Henon in 2015 was floating a Council resolution calling for public hearings to investigate alleged abuses by a specific company — George Smith Towing — rather than calling for wider hearings on predatory practices across the towing industry — he said he assumed it was because Henon’s car had been hauled by the firm earlier that summer. But he was told by Henon’s chief of staff, Courtney Voss, that the councilmember had gotten other complaints.
“‘John Dougherty [did] as well,’” Holroyd recalled her saying.
Holroyd testified that Henon would also routinely ask him to look into code violation complaints outside of his Northeast Philadelphia district, often referred to the office by Local 98 or its representatives.
“It generally wasn’t the practice of a district councilperson to look into or investigate properties in another councilperson’s district. It’s a matter of councilmanic prerogative,” he said, referring to Council’s unwritten practice of deferring questions of zoning and construction in a particular district to the councilmember elected to represent it.
By far the most time-intensive, Local 98-adjacent project that Holroyd described working on was the 2015 wrangling between Comcast and Local 98 during its franchise agreement renegotiation.
The closed-door meeting between Dougherty and the cable giant resulted in a verbal agreement that Comcast would hire unionized labor for any projects on public right of ways as long as their rates were competitive.
Holroyd spent the next six months assisting Local 98 staffers with memorializing that deal in writing, according to emails shown in court.
The private “memorandum of agreement” between Comcast and Dougherty, as the representative of the city’s building trades, was not finished until six months after Council had publicly debated and approved the official version of the franchise bill.
Council publicly distributed the details of and voted on other concessions it won from the cable giant, including commitments to provide low-cost internet to seniors and to fund internet access to city rec centers and other facilities.
Neither occurred for Comcast’s side deal with Dougherty.
“Would the public have any way of knowing about that agreement or accessing that letter?” Witzleben asked.
“Not that I’m aware of,” Holroyd responded. “I had [never] worked on any similar letter.”
But on cross-examination, defense lawyers pushed back on the idea that there was anything underhanded about the deal Dougherty negotiated — or Henon’s role in facilitating it.
Dougherty was advocating on behalf of union members across the city as he’d been elected to do as the head of the city’s Building Trades Council, an umbrella organization representing Philadelphia’s unionized workforce, his attorney Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. said. He raised safety concerns in that meeting about the nonunion contractor Comcast had previously used.
Meanwhile, Henon, as the head of the Council committee overseeing the franchise agreement and the sponsor of the final version of the bill, had a vested interest in setting up meetings with interested parties on all sides of the deal, his lawyer Brian J. McMonagle stressed.
Holroyd acknowledged that Local 98 members had an interest in the electrical work described in the proposed franchise deal.
“So [it was] a meeting with a stakeholder,” McMonagle said, “there’s nothing inappropriate about that, is there?”
Ultimately, Holroyd acknowledged he couldn’t say whether the deal between Dougherty and Comcast he’d spent months editing was ever formally executed.
Throughout his testimony Tuesday, the former Council staffer — who now works for State Sen. Maria Collett — appeared uneasy and seemed to be cautiously choosing his words as he testified about his former boss, who was seated at the defense table only feet away.
And it wasn’t the first time he described feeling ill at ease around Henon. In the weeks after the FBI raided Henon’s City Hall and district offices in 2016, Holroyd described the councilmember as having pushed him to share any details he knew about the agents’ activities and encouraging their lawyers to talk to each other.
“The councilman relayed to me that we had done nothing wrong as an office,” he said, recalling that Henon had told him: “While we had separate attorneys, there … was nothing wrong with sharing information.’”
Holroyd still hesitated.
“I did not want to discuss the situation with the councilman,” he said. “It was an uncomfortable time in my life.”
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