Today’s topic is an appeal of a state court ruling that shouldn’t be appealed.
It involves, PennDot, John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, his brother, state Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty, and union money, all in a jumble of politics and policy.
It’s more a mixed mosaic than a clear picture. But it doesn’t look good.
It stems from litigation over a $20 million, multiyear PennDot project in Montgomery County -- improvements to Norristown’s Markley Street, which is Route 202, to improve travel through the county seat.
At issue is a PennDot bid solicitation, originally issued in August 2017, that includes a project labor agreement (PLA) with the Building and Construction Council of Philadelphia and Vicinity, run by Doc, mandating that contractors hire union labor for the project’s second phase.
It was the first time PennDot ever sought a PLA for any project. The first phase was done ahead of schedule and on budget without a PLA.
So, some contractors protested. Called PennDot’s actions arbitrary and unlawful. And when PennDot stuck to its guns, they appealed to state Commonwealth Court, arguing, in part, the PLA violates state competitive-bidding laws.
PennDot is appealing to the state Supreme Court.
Now to some dicey bits.
Doc is under a 116-count federal indictment, charged with public corruption, making false statements, and stealing union funds. He has pleaded not guilty.
He remains head of the trades council, which would benefit from a PLA, and still runs IBEW Local 98, which is part of the council, along with bricklayers, carpenters and others.
Local 98 is also a huge statewide political force thanks to generous (as in six- and seven-figure) campaign financial support given to key state pols and judges.
These include Gov. Tom Wolf and Justice Dougherty, more than $1 million each.
Justice Dougherty would have to recuse himself from this case, a reminder of the undue influence of money in electing state judges (which we shouldn’t be doing).
PennDot Secretary Leslie Richards, a Wolf appointee, got union money, including from IBEW, for her successful campaign for Montgomery County commissioner in 2011, according to Inquirer reporting at that time.
Also, part of PennDot’s argument for a PLA is a report it contracted for with Keystone Research Center, a Harrisburg-based, labor-linked think tank.
Wolf, as a private citizen, served for a decade on Keystone’s board of directors, 1997-2007.
The court’s ruling killing the PLA said the Keystone report, “Did not justify the PLA because it did not identify any extraordinary circumstances surrounding the Markley Street Project that warrants its use.”
The project is on hold.
The basics of this -- why a PLA now, why one tied to a union boss generous to Democrats in and out of the administration who happens to be under indictment – were raised briefly at a state House Appropriations Committee hearing last week when Secretary Richards was questioned by state Rep. Seth Grove (R., York).
She confirmed that this is PennDot’s first proposed PLA and that the Commonwealth Court ruling against it is under appeal to the state Supreme Court.
She told Grove other states have success with PLAs. She said of this one, “It might save us a lot of money, it might be a bad idea for us in Pennsylvania. … We don’t know. And, so, I thought it was worth trying.”
Which hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement.
A PennDot spokesperson declined comment, citing litigation.
Grove tells me he’s not saying PLAs are good or bad but that PennDot should scrap this one: “If they want to try one, try one in, I don’t know, Pittsburgh, as far away from Doc as possible.”
I agree. Nothing against unions -- I belong to one, the NewsGuild of Greater Philadelphia. Nothing against labor agreements.
There are arguments for PLAs: provide high-quality workers, get work done on time, make big projects easier to manage under one contract.
There are arguments against PLAs: unfair to nonunion contractors and workers, anti-competitive for those who won’t bid because their employees could be forced to join a union.
But there’s no argument about the optics of this one. They’re bad. They can further erode trust in government and politics in a state where confidence in public service already needs major reconstruction.
I don’t suggest Wolf, Justice Dougherty or Richards are or have been influenced by political contributions. I suggest they do all in their power to avoid that appearance.