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Local 98 wants its longtime leader John Dougherty to pay up after his convictions for bribery and embezzlement

The clash over how much he should have to repay only further underscores the rift that has erupted between Dougherty and the union he led for nearly 30 years.

Former labor leader Johnny Dougherty arrives at the federal courthouse in Center City Philadelphia in April.
Former labor leader Johnny Dougherty arrives at the federal courthouse in Center City Philadelphia in April.Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer

READING — Local 98 has a message for its former leader, John Dougherty: Pay up.

The 5,000-member electricians’ union is asking a federal judge to order Dougherty and his former second-in-command, ex-union president Brian Burrows, to reimburse it for more than $1.5 million in legal expenses it says it incurred during the federal investigation that led to the pair’s convictions on embezzlement charges.

But Dougherty and Burrows maintained at a Monday hearing in federal court that they shouldn’t be stuck with the bill.

“You just can’t throw your hands in the air and say we’re going to pay all these lawyers,” Burrows’ attorney, Thomas A. Bergstrom, argued before U.S. District Judge Jeffrey L. Schmehl.

The dispute comes as Dougherty faces a sentencing hearing Thursday in which prosecutors are expected to urge a judge to put him behind bars for up to 14 years. It also further underscores the growing rift that has erupted between Dougherty and the current leadership of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the union he transformed over nearly three decades into the most politically powerful labor union in the state.

» READ MORE: Prosecutors will seek up to 14 years for labor leader Johnny Doc at his sentencing next week on bribery and embezzlement charges

Schmehl did not rule on the matter Monday, instead giving the attorneys more time to file additional arguments and noting that the complex nature of the legal fee request will take longer to sort out and won’t be resolved by Dougherty’s sentencing date. The judge has previously said he feels that it’s important that “the union get its assets back.”

In all, Dougherty, Burrows, and five codefendants have been convicted of stealing more than $600,000 between 2010 and 2016, which they spent on everything from home renovations, travel, and pricey restaurant meals to more mundane purchases like groceries and home goods.

As each has faced sentencing so far, Schmehl has ordered them all to repay the union for what they stole. So far, those restitution payments have amounted to nearly $129,000 in reimbursements to Local 98.

During Monday’s hearing, Schmehl said Burrows had agreed to pay Local 98 around $455,000 for the money he stole from union coffers. The government has suggested that Dougherty return around $591,000.

But the union maintains those sums don’t account for the hundreds of thousands of dollars it has also spent dealing with the investigation.

As soon as Local 98 became aware of the probe after a series of 2016 FBI raids, the union circled the wagons, its attorney William T. Josem said in recent court filings.

The executive board of Local 98 and its apprentice-training program voted to cover the cost of attorneys for those under investigation and potential witnesses who were members of the union and who might be called to testify before grand juries or at Dougherty’s eventual trials.

Fees for those lawyers — as well as work by a team of attorneys and outside auditors responding to what Josem described as a series of “broad grand jury subpoenas for documents” — added up quickly.

For example, Dougherty’s daughter Tara Chupka — who at the time was working as in-house counsel for Local 98 — had frequent contact with the government during the investigation preparing responses to authorities’ subpoena requests. Dougherty, Josem said, recommended she hire John M. Pease, a white-collar defense lawyer from the Philadelphia firm Morgan Lewis, to represent her — a choice that resulted in bills to the union of more than $127,000.

Likewise, legal representation for Local 98′s office manager, Lisa Ketterlinus, who testified for the government at Dougherty and Burrows’ 2023 trial, cost Local 98 nearly $132,000. Burrows’ son and fellow union member Bryan Burrows racked up roughly $5,750 in legal expenses, according to union accounting.

Many witnesses were granted immunity, and most were not eager to meet with federal investigators, Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Costello told the judge, who asked for a list of those witnesses..

And the legal bills only grew, Josem said, when the government subpoenaed six years’ worth of records from a third-party union auditor, which later billed Local 98 for producing millions of pages of documents to federal investigators.

In court Monday, Josem said he was reticent to “second guess” what all of those lawyers had billed Local 98 for their services. In all, he added, their bills amounted to more than $1.5 million to the union, its apprentice program and its benefit funds.

“Local 98 and its members, the victims in this proceeding, expended substantial sums in connection with the investigation,” the lawyer wrote in recent filings. “Restitution for those sums clearly falls within the parameters” of what convicted defendants can be ordered to pay, he added.

But Dougherty’s attorney, Greg Pagano called it a “very slippery slope” for his client to be forced to pay the legal bills of the dozens of witnesses involved in his prosecution.

He asked how the union could differentiate between legal services provided to union witnesses involved in the embezzlement case and those who were also involved in a 2021 trial that ended with Dougherty’s conviction on bribery charges alongside former City Councilmember Bobby Henon, for which Local 98 is not seeking reimbursement. Many officials for whom the union hired lawyers played a role in both of those trials, Pagano said.

“To be Solomon-esque in a case like this is difficult if not impossible,” he said.

» READ MORE: Two years after taking over for John Dougherty, Local 98′s new leader says the union has hit ‘the reset button’

Burrows, meanwhile, who was sentenced to four years in prison last month, accused Local 98 of now looking to double dip. His lawyer contended that Local 98 had already been reimbursed for some of the legal costs of the investigation through a legal settlement with its insurer last year, the details of which remain confidential.

“It’s totally out of control,” Bergstrom said.

The judge countered: ”You know why they want it, they didn’t make it out of thin air.”