Johnny Doc’s ‘guy on the inside’: Wiretaps show as Comcast deal neared a Council vote, the labor leader called on Henon
As jurors continued to hear wiretap recordings around the 2015 Comcast franchise deal, they were left with the question of what constitutes lobbying vs. evidence of federal bribery crimes.
As the city finalized its renegotiated franchise agreement with Comcast in late 2015, labor leader John Dougherty emerged from the process with a side agreement that wrung long-sought concessions from the company that benefited his union.
And, in wiretapped recordings played Monday in his federal bribery trial, he gave credit, in part, to the man he described as his “guy on the inside”: Councilmember Bobby Henon.
The flurry of recorded phone calls from late 2015 and early 2016 — which kicked off the fourth week of prosecutors’ case against the labor leader and the councilmember — showed Dougherty aggressively pushing Henon, who was overseeing the franchise negotiations, to squeeze exactly what he wanted from the cable giant.
» READ MORE: John Dougherty was ‘cordial,’ an ex-Comcast VP testified. But wiretaps reveal his harsh words for the ‘greedy’ cable giant.
But as they have done throughout the trial, defense lawyers contended that those calls constituted an effort by Dougherty to lobby a like-minded elected official and not, as prosecutors insist, evidence of a federal crime.
“Mr. Dougherty isn’t hiding his role vis-à-vis the Comcast contract negotiations?” Dougherty’s attorney Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. asked while cross-examining Jason Blake, the FBI’s lead investigator on the case. “He’s out there — out front.”
As prosecutors see it, Henon — who was being paid a more than $70,000-a-year salary by Dougherty’s union, Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers — improperly injected the labor leader into the city’s negotiation process, allowing him to make his own demands of Comcast and then tying them to City Council’s vote on the overall franchise deal, which governs the terms under which the company builds out and operates its cable network on publicly owned lands.
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Dougherty’s frequent calls to the councilmember weren’t intended as lobbying, the government has argued; they were Dougherty’s orders to an employee.
They pointed to a December 2015 phone call between Dougherty and Local 98 political director Marita Crawford, in which she recounted a conversation she had with Henon shortly after the franchise deal had passed a preliminary vote.
Henon had vented to her that Dougherty, with his many demands for concessions benefiting Local 98, didn’t understand the additional pressures he was under in his role as an elected member of Council.
“‘He’s like, ‘You don’t know what it’s like on the inside,’ ” Crawford recounted. “He wants to be on the outside and the inside. [But] I said … ‘If you want to get everything you get from John, then you’ve got to learn your role has a dual role.’ ”
In a call a month earlier with a union negotiator, Dougherty had complaints of his own about Henon.
“He absolutely is not doing anything,” the labor leader said. “This is becoming a little bit of a problem with him.”
Dougherty’s requests throughout the negotiations centered on two key concessions he sought from Comcast: a commitment that they would live up to the terms of an earlier verbal agreement on using unionized labor for work inside Center City’s commercial buildings, and that they’d agree to pay union-level wages for all other work in the city.
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Comcast, Dougherty said, was trying to ice him out. In a November 2015 conversation with a union negotiator, he noted the company had failed to send its usual post-Thanksgiving spread of turkey, eggnog, apple cake, and pie to Local 98′s Flyers box.
At times, as he pushed Henon in the calls played Monday, Dougherty came off as strident.
“People hate Comcast,” he told the councilmember before a key committee hearing on the franchise agreement in late 2015. “So, if they’re not going to give us anything we want, I’m not for the [franchise] deal.”
At others, he waxed poetic about the broader importance of the demands he was making during the renegotiation process between Comcast and the city, which occurs every 15 years.
“Every 15 years, poor people get a chance to get internet, working-class people get a chance to get wages,” he said. “[Comcast] can’t believe they’re not getting their way, and they’re not just stampeding [through Council].”
And as the negotiations wore on, some — including Council President Darrell L. Clarke — questioned why Comcast’s ongoing negotiations with Dougherty should hold up the city’s finalizing its own agreement with the company.
“Last I checked, [Dougherty] doesn’t have a vote over here in City Council,” Clarke reportedly said, according to a call in which Henon discussed with Dougherty a conversation he’d had with the Council president.
Dougherty responded: “Darrell wants to play stupid games. … I don’t play in his f— world. I’m in my world. … I don’t give a f—. F— him.”
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But a franchise agreement was eventually finalized and approved by the full City Council in December 2015, and Dougherty had emerged with an agreement in principle from Comcast.
(Though as Andrew Topping, Comcast’s then-senior vice president of labor and employee relations, would later tell jurors, a final written agreement memorializing the company’s deal with Dougherty was never completed in the months that followed.)
Still, after the final vote in Council, Dougherty offered Henon two dozen tickets in Local 98′s box at Lincoln Financial Field for an upcoming Eagles game against the Buffalo Bills. Prosecutors have labeled that as yet another bribe.
The defense, however, pushed back, saying the tickets weren’t meant to reward Henon for his role in the franchise talks. Entertaining public officials and business leaders at Eagles games, they say, was just one of the responsibilities of the part-time job he continued to hold with the union while he also served on Council.
And Dougherty, Hockeimer noted, was hardly the only outside interest seeking to peg sought-after concessions from Comcast to Council’s approval of the final deal. Other side deals that emerged during the process led to expanded access to low-cost internet for seniors and an agreement by Comcast to devote more money to its network connecting city-owned buildings.
As he’s argued previously, Hockeimer stressed that Dougherty — as the representative of both Local 98 and the Building Trades Council, an umbrella organization representing the city’s trade unions — had a legitimate role to play in the Comcast talks.
He pointed to calls in which Dougherty referenced conversations he’d had with then-Mayor Michael Nutter and even Clarke, asking what it was he needed so that the negotiating process could move forward.
“They knew he was the point person as far as labor?” Hockeimer asked Blake on cross-examination.
But Blake, ultimately, resisted.
“I believe they knew,” he said, “that he’d inserted himself” into the process.
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