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Inside the hushed debate over whether the ‘Johnny Doc’ case was a crackdown on corruption — or unions

The convictions put local progressives in a difficult position: Condemning the union could give legitimacy to a perceived attack on labor; defending it risks appearing comfortable with corruption.

Some see the prosecution of former electricians union leader John J. Dougherty and City Councilmember Bobby Henon as an attack on labor.
Some see the prosecution of former electricians union leader John J. Dougherty and City Councilmember Bobby Henon as an attack on labor.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

For many, last week’s convictions of former electricians union leader John Dougherty and City Councilmember Bobby Henon represented the latest chapter in Philadelphia’s long and infamous history of political corruption.

But for some politicians and activists in the local progressive movement, the convictions were a new chapter in a very different history — that of the U.S. justice system persecuting organized labor.

Few in the left wing of Philly politics have been willing to speak publicly about the case. Some say privately that doing so would put them in a difficult position: Condemning the two men could give legitimacy to a perceived attack on unions; defending them risks appearing to endorse corruption.

And for those who believe the justice system is biased against labor, that’s exactly the point.

“One of the political uses of corruption charges has been to put a special stink on the labor movement of not just having corruption, but of it being especially corrupt,” said Alexander Gourevitch, a Brown University political scientist who has written about the evolution of the modern American police state in reaction to labor unrest. “Even ordinary grease-the-wheels politics is assumed to be corrupt when it involves labor elements.”

To be sure, not everyone in the progressive movement sees it that way. Others are simply wary of speaking out against Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which under Dougherty became the biggest spender in Pennsylvania politics. And Dougherty’s brash attitude and vengeful style have made him a difficult figure to rally around.

How elected officials responded to the conviction Monday of arguably Philadelphia’s most high-profile labor leader could become a lasting dynamic in city politics, and candidates in future elections are likely to question the propriety of their rivals’ accepting contributions from the union.

For instance, progressive stalwart Councilmember Helen Gym, who did not respond to requests for comment last week, has been the most vocal supporter of Henon on Council since he was indicted, while Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, a longtime foe of Local 98, is the only member to call for his resignation. Both are considered potential candidates in the 2023 mayoral race.

The debate has just begun to be waged publicly.

Like many of his peers in the progressive movement that has in recent years grown into a formidable force in Philly politics, State Rep. Rick Krajewski (D., Phila.) last week declined to comment after the jury delivered guilty verdicts on bribery and honest services fraud charges. But Krajewski gave voice to the sentiment being shared quietly on the left days before the convictions came down, in which jurors found in part that Dougherty bribed Henon, the local’s former political director, by continuing to pay him his $70,000-a-year union salary after he took office.

“Corporate interests and CEOs and banks and developers all do things that seem like extreme conflicts of interests,” Krajewski said, describing what he called a double standard. “But as soon as we have a pro-union Council member that does something that seems like it’s of interest for organized labor, it’s a scandal.”

Attorneys for Dougherty and Henon argued at trial that their clients’ attempts to influence government were no more corrupt than those of other special interests like large corporations. Mayor Jim Kenney, a product of Philadelphia machine politics who has become a progressive ally, also took up their mantle.

“Do you think that every major corporation in this city and in this region doesn’t influence on a legislative body? That’s naive to think that that’s not the case,” said Kenney, whose mayoral campaigns received significant support from political action committees Dougherty controlled. “So, yeah, does organized labor have the right to lobby for their issues? Absolutely. So does the banking industry, so does cable TV, so do restaurant people.”

Whether or not they apply to the Local 98 case, critiques of the justice system’s approach to labor are not without historical basis. Gourevitch’s work traces the development of U.S. law enforcement from small, poorly funded police forces of the early 1800s to the highly militarized and professional departments of today. By Gourevitch’s reckoning, the legacy of that change is still reflected in the legal systems of today.

A major step in that evolution, according to Gourevitch, was the mass strike movement at the end of the 19th century. At that moment, wealthy business owners transitioned from being resistant to funding local police budgets — because they favored their own private security forces — to actively lobbying and sometimes fund-raising for a more advanced and militarized policing.

“The wealthy realized, ‘Well, actually our private police forces aren’t good enough,’” Gourevitch said. “Not only do they start being willing to pay taxes to fund a police force, but they voluntarily began to contribute large amounts of money to buy stashes of weapons for the police force.”

With the exception of major legislative victories for organized labor in the 1930s, Gourevitch said, the 20th century brought a more advanced approach to “disciplining” labor and the far left with investigations led by “special forces” of the police or the FBI to suppress special elements of the left.

Barry Eidlin, a McGill University comparative historical sociologist who has studied the labor movements in America and Canada, said that history has resulted in a system in which potentially questionable behavior of workers’ organizations in the United States is heavily scrutinized while straightforwardly unethical tactics of the propertied class remain legal.

“Part of the issue is precisely how we define corruption, and how we define corruption often excludes a lot of business practices that are corrupt but technically legal,” Eidlin said. “You think about all the tax evasion schemes and shell companies — that clearly is corrupt on a moral level, but because that’s not strictly illegal, it might not get defined as corrupt.”

If there is judicial-system bias working against Dougherty and Henon, it is not as simple as a GOP-orchestrated takedown of Local 98. The investigation and prosecution centered on Dougherty has unfolded under three presidential administrations: two Democrats and one Republican.

Michael T. Harpster, who was the head of the Philadelphia office of the FBI when charges were announced in 2019, said at a news conference then that the Dougherty investigation should not be read as an indictment of the union or its members.

If anything, Harpster said, “John Dougherty is not pro-union, and does not honestly represent the interests of all of 98′s membership.”

Despite the broader issues at hand, the question of whether Dougherty and Henon were acting corruptly for their own benefit — or selflessly for the sake of union members — is not a simple one.

Defenders of the two men have said that some evidence from the trial that prosecutors cast as wrongdoing simply showed Dougherty asking Henon to take actions that would benefit the workers of their union, not themselves.

But other allegations appeared to show Dougherty and Henon using their power to advance their own interests. Prosecutors alleged that Dougherty ordered Henon to manipulate the timing of legislation on the plumbing code to get leverage over plumbers’ union leaders as he campaigned to lead the Building Trades Council, the umbrella group that represents several politically influential unions. The jury convicted Dougherty and Henon on charges related to the plumbing code.

The government also filed charges related to an incident in which Dougherty angrily phoned Henon after a tow-truck driver attempted to haul away his double-parked car from a Pennsport Mall lot, leading the two to discuss plans to ensnare the towing company in investigations and legal fees. Henon’s office drafted a resolution to hold hearings on the company, but the Council member never introduced it.

It’s not the first time that Philadelphia’s building construction trades have put their progressive allies in the difficult position of choosing between remaining in solidarity with labor and calling out practices or politics that are anathema to the left’s priorities. Political committees Dougherty controlled, for instance, have sometimes backed Republicans.

Dougherty also opposed the permanent closure in 2019 of the refinery in South Philadelphia — and the end of the hundreds of union jobs at the facility — despite environmental advocates cheering its demise as a victory against the fossil-fuel industry.

And the trades have for decades been criticized for a lack of diversity in a majority-minority city. The unions refuse to regularly disclose their demographics, and the few recent reports on their membership have shown a workforce that is overwhelmingly white and suburban.

State Rep. Chris Rabb (D., Phila.), the most prominent member of the insurgent progressive movement to call out Dougherty and Henon, said Friday that Henon should resign and abandon his plans to stay in office until he is legally required to step down in February. The convictions, he said, represented “a both/and situation,” meaning it’s possible to believe both that the justice system is biased against labor — and that Local 98 officials acted corruptly.

“My condemnation for this type of behavior is no more intense than my diatribes against media consolidation, against privatization of the prison industrial complex,” Rabb said, alluding to examples of what he sees as corporate malfeasance. “It’s all related.”

Staff writers Jeremy Roebuck and Julia Terruso contributed to this article.