John Dougherty and Bobby Henon are on trial. But City Hall is watching nervously.
Those close to Kenney have so far been relieved that none of the evidence has proved damning for the administration.
Nearly a month into the government’s bribery case against labor leader John J. Dougherty and City Councilmember Bobby Henon, the stench of yet another in Philadelphia’s long history of high-profile corruption trials has begun to waft down Market Street from the federal courthouse to City Hall.
Mayor Jim Kenney, Council President Darrell L. Clarke, and other officials declined to comment on the proceedings that could put one of Kenney’s leading supporters and a top Council ally in prison if they are convicted.
But in private, many in City Hall have spent much of the last few weeks refreshing their browsers for updates on the case, as the names of Council staffers, lobbyists, political consultants, and union leaders pop up in court.
“Everybody tries to act like it’s not happening,” said Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, a frequent antagonist of Dougherty’s Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “There’s no way for us to distance ourselves.”
Those close to Kenney have so far been relieved that none of the evidence has been especially damaging for the administration, according to people in and around the mayor’s inner circle.
“They are all watching the trial and intrigued, but not concerned, for themselves or their futures in politics,” said one person who, like Kenney, was notified by the federal government that they were recorded during the investigation. “I didn’t really see anything in there that was that embarrassing for the mayor.”
Still, the recordings played for jurors so far have exposed the at times petty and transactional ways that important matters are handled in the world of Philadelphia politics. With frequent profanity and strong Philly accents, men who refer to each other as Jimmy, Johnny, Bobby, and Richie are heard throughout hashing out deals, often guided by personal grudges, perceived slights, and base favor-trading.
The tapes have held few surprises for those who work alongside that cast of characters day in and day out, showing a blustery and hot-tempered Dougherty aggressively pushing his agenda while a more even-keeled Henon navigates Council.
“I don’t think anybody’s read anything that has made them reevaluate their feelings about John Dougherty,” said the person whose phone was taped, speaking on the condition of anonymity to comment on private conversations.
Still, many feel it reflects poorly on Philadelphia’s political ecosystem.
“For the average person, you wouldn’t expect the level of diabolical political maneuvering,” said David Thornburgh, president of the good-government nonprofit Committee of Seventy. “This is reinforcing these decades-old perceptions about how Philadelphia works — and that way of doing business is not working for us.”
Prosecutors allege Dougherty effectively bought the power of Henon’s office with a $70,000-a-year union salary and then used it to stare down the union boss’ personal and professional foes from Comcast to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He and his lawyers maintain he’s guilty of nothing but playing the game of Philadelphia politics while fighting relentlessly for his union and organized labor in the city.
Either way, Thornburgh says that style of politicking drives talent away from the city and is “an indicator of the political tax that we levy on businesses and organizations in this town.”
“Believe it or not, not everybody wants to play that game,” he said. “So the next time they have an option to head out of town and get an offer from another city, another state, another company — part of them is thinking, ‘Well, this sounds like a much more straightforward, open political process.’”
More than anything, the evidence presented so far has demonstrated the extent to which Dougherty believed he could influence the machinations of City Hall under Kenney, whose 2015 mayoral campaign got a major boost from outside spending by the political action committees Dougherty controls.
“Jimmy is Johnny’s No. 1 guy,” Henon explained in a September 2015 call to a member of another union.
In recordings played last week, Dougherty boasted of the number of people he viewed as Local 98 loyalists in positions of power in Kenney’s administration — including Deputy Mayor Rich Lazer, who’d worked as a consultant for the union; James Moylan, Dougherty’s chiropractor and Kenney’s former appointee to lead the Zoning Board of Adjustments; and Chris Rupe, Local 98′s former legislative director who went on to work in the Office of the Managing Director as part of the administration.
“I’m starting to ask for some of the stuff I want now,” Dougherty said, in a 2016 conversation with the head of another union. “And [Kenney] is giving me whatever we want.”
The administration was quick to push back against any impression that those men were selected for their jobs because of their ties to Local 98.
“The individuals that were mentioned were qualified for the positions they were appointed to,” Kevin Lessard, the city’s acting communications director, said in a recent statement. He included a list of each man’s accomplishments and experience.
Kenney is heard in the recordings being more than ready to help Dougherty himself.
“Is there something you need me to do?” he asked Dougherty in 2015, as the labor leader plotted to have Henon hold up a rewrite of the plumbing code to pressure the plumbers union into supporting his election as head of the Building Trades Council.
But Dougherty, Henon, and Kenney’s recorded assessments of one another haven’t always been flattering, either.
“You remember who Jimmy was back in the day,” Henon said of the mayor, referring to Kenney’s time as a councilmember, during a 2016 call with an official for the sprinkler fitters’ union. “He was a [expletive]. … You spook him, and he would s— his pants.”
For Quiñones-Sánchez, the recordings show a high-water mark for Local 98′s influence and for the ambitiousness of the administration. In the heady days of 2015 and 2016, Kenney was crafting a bold agenda for his first term, and Henon was ascending to Council majority leader, a post his colleagues stripped from him after the charges were brought against him.
“In the beginning of that term, there was a different tone, and they clearly had a focused agenda, and unfortunately we are watching it unravel now,” she said. “Nobody wants to have the end of [a mayor’s] legacy be marred by all of this.”
Henon’s Council colleagues haven’t been spared, either. Clarke, the Council president, has repeatedly come up as a target for derision in calls among Dougherty, Henon, and allies played in court.
After a 2016 AFL-CIO conference at the Jersey Shore, where members of Council had been invited to address the union attendees, Dougherty vented to Henon that Clarke tried to muscle the other councilmembers out of the spotlight.
“I could have had that f— room boo him and walk the f— out on him,” Dougherty said.
Members of Kenney’s cabinet were also caught on the wire, bemoaning the Council president’s expected opposition to Kenney’s soda-tax initiative.
“You know Darrell,” Lazer lamented to Dougherty in a 2016 call. “He will love to hand us a loss.”
Clarke declined to comment on the trial.
Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson’s name has twice surfaced under an unusual set of circumstances. In 2016, Dougherty and Henon were discussing what each member of Council would need for them to vote for Kenney’s soda-tax proposal.
“Kenyatta probably needs ... a ‘little hug’ to give him an incentive,” Henon said.
Dougherty responded, “Let him know that if you get this stuff, there’s going to be a ton of major-league jobs that his wife is qualified for.”
A year earlier, as Henon was trying to build Council support for issues Dougherty wanted addressed in the city’s franchise agreement with Comcast, Dougherty noted in a conversation with another union associate that Johnson had made a similar request around that bill.
“When [Henon] was in … Kenyatta’s house, he said, ‘Oh, can we help his wife?’” Dougherty said.
Both Johnson and his wife, Dawn Chavous, are awaiting trial in an unrelated federal bribery case alleging the councilmember accepted more than $66,750 in bribes paid in the form of contracting work for Chavous from a Philadelphia nonprofit seeking Johnson’s support in matters before Council.
Johnson declined to comment. Both he and his wife have denied wrongdoing and have said that she was always hired on merit.
They are set to stand trial in February. When that time comes, City Hall is sure to be watching closely once again.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Chris Rupe, Local 98′s former legislative director, still worked in the city’s Office of the Managing Director. He left his post last year.