Testifying in John Dougherty’s trial, Deputy Mayor Richard Lazer describes close ties to the labor leader
Richard Lazer, a member of Mayor Kenney’s cabinet and the city’s deputy mayor for labor, is the highest-ranked government official yet to testify in the federal bribery trial.
When a tow-truck driver tried to haul away John Dougherty’s double-parked car from the Pennsport Mall in 2015, the labor leader made an unusual phone call for help.
Not to the towing company. Not to the police. But instead — before the truck had even left the parking lot — he called a highly placed official in the campaign of then-presumptive Mayor Jim Kenney.
Kenney had just won the Democratic primary and his campaign’s political director, Richard Lazer, told Dougherty he would do what he could to help, wiretapped conversations show.
“I know the guy that runs that … sh—show,” Lazer said after learning that the union chief had paid the truck driver to release his car. “I will get you the money back.”
Now a deputy mayor for labor in Kenney’s administration, Lazer recalled that incident while testifying Thursday in Dougherty’s federal bribery trial. Through his influence, he told jurors, he got Dougherty his refund before the evening was out.
And as government lawyers continued their questioning of the highest-ranked City Hall official they have called to testify yet in their case, it soon became clear that that wasn’t the first — or last — time Dougherty and the person he viewed as his man inside Kenney’s administration found ways to help each other.
“We need access,” Dougherty said in another 2015 call played for jurors Thursday. “He’s our access.”
» READ MORE: As it happened: Deputy mayor testifies about soda tax and relationship with John Dougherty
Prosecutors have not accused Lazer of any improper conduct. And it’s City Councilmember Bobby Henon who is on trial alongside the labor leader accused of accepting bribes.
But Lazer’s testimony offered a revealing glimpse at the extent to which Dougherty has amassed allies and exerted influence at all levels of government.
Throughout Kenney’s 2015 campaign, for instance, while Lazer was working what he described for jurors as an “all-the-time” job as the Kenney campaign’s political director, Dougherty’s union — Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers — was also paying him $4,000 a month as a consultant. (Lazer’s wife also held a job at the time as an administrative assistant for the union.)
Lazer described his union gig as fielding a couple of calls a week from union officials to answer their questions about the inner workings of government.
“That’s $500 a call?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Costello quipped.
Later that year, as Kenney was staffing up for his mayoral administration, Dougherty told Lazer he’d lobby the incoming mayor to name him to his cabinet.
And when it came time for Kenney to push his signature soda-tax legislation, it was Lazer who collaborated with Dougherty on building union support for the bill.
“You needed Mr. Dougherty’s help to get the soda tax passed?” defense lawyer Henry E. Hockeimer asked on cross-examination.
Lazer replied: “Yes.”
As for the towing incident, Lazer said that after working for Kenney as a councilmember for years, he’d heard more than a few stories about predatory practices within the industry and had worked on legislation to reform it in 2010.
Throughout his questioning, Hockeimer emphasized that as deputy mayor for labor it was hardly unusual that Lazer and Dougherty would speak frequently.
“In Philadelphia, organized labor is a big deal,” the lawyer said. “So to get legislation — to get stuff to pass — you need union support.”
A battle with Verizon
Lazer’s testimony followed the conclusion of two days of government testimony focused on Henon and prosecutors’ allegation that he was bribed in 2015 and 2016 into helping another union that was locked in a contentious labor dispute with Verizon.
At the time, the company was finishing the expansion of its FiOS fiber optic cable network across the city. But the workforce doing that job — largely represented by Local 13000 of the Communications Workers of America — had gone on strike after reaching an impasse in contract negotiations.
Wiretap recordings played for jurors Wednesday showed Henon and the CWA local president, Jim Gardler, plotting to drag company officials before City Council for a hearing ostensibly about whether Verizon would complete its work under the deadlines set by its franchise agreement with the city.
Gardler, however, aimed to use the hearing for another purpose — to publicly embarrass the company in hopes of gaining new leverage in his union’s ongoing labor negotiations.
And at the same time he was urging Henon to call those public hearings, he facilitated $13,000 in donations to the councilmember’s campaign — money prosecutors have labeled as a payoff.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bea Witzleben played the video of the April 2016 hearing Henon eventually called — a raucous three-hour proceeding in which CWA members packed the council chambers and heckled and booed Verizon representatives throughout.
All of the councilmembers in attendance grilled Verizon’s representatives, but Henon gave a particularly animated performance, accusing the company of “arrogance” and “greed” and hiding information he’d previously asked for on the progress of their build-out.
(A city employee who testified earlier in the trial said Henon had not, in fact, asked for that information and didn’t follow up on it at all once he eventually received it.)
“No wonder Verizon is making a $36 billion profit; it’s off the backs of you,” the councilmember said, drawing cheers from the crowd of CWA workers in the room. He concluded the hearing with a promise that they could “count on our support.”
» READ MORE: John Dougherty and Bobby Henon bribery trial: What you need to know
But Henon’s lawyer, Brian J. McMonagle, balked Thursday at the government’s suggestion that his client’s outrage at Verizon was a put-on or that CWA’s campaign donations could be considered a bribe.
He noted that Henon, an avowedly pro-union elected official, received thousands of dollars in donations in 2015 and 2016 from other labor unions — some who gave more than CWA. And the councilmember was hardly the only candidate that the union spent big on in those years.
Kenney, who was then running for mayor, received more than $23,000 during the same period, according to campaign-finance reports shown in court.
CWA donations to Henon, McMonagle noted, were no different.
“[Henon’s] asking about a campaign contribution, correct?” he asked while questioning the case’s lead investigator, FBI Special Agent Jason Blake, about the alleged bribe. “He’s not asking about cash in a bag.”
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