THREE MORE defendants in the federal racketeering case against members of the local Ironworkers union pleaded guilty yesterday, but a judge said he will wait before deciding whether to accept the guilty pleas.

U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson said at separate hearings for the three - Christopher Prophet, 43, of Richboro, Bucks County; William O'Donnell, 62, of Cherry Hill; and Richard Ritchie, 45, of Philadelphia - that he needs more information about their backgrounds and their roles in the case.

"As I sit here today, I don't know whether I will accept the plea or not," Baylson said at the first hearing, Prophet's.

"I believe in proportionality," the judge said, with more-culpable defendants receiving harsher sentences and less-culpable defendants getting lesser sentences.

Prophet, O'Donnell and Ritchie were among 10 members of Ironworkers Local 401 who were indicted in February, accused of engaging in a pattern of racketeering crimes, including arson and extortion, to force or attempt to force nonunion contractors to hire their members. Two more members were later charged.

Of the 12 defendants, all but one have pleaded guilty.

The remaining defendant - the union's former longtime head, Joseph Dougherty, 73, of Philadelphia - maintains his innocence. A jury was picked yesterday for his Jan. 5 trial.

Prophet pleaded guilty yesterday to the two charges he faced - racketeering conspiracy and extortion. He was one of the union's four business agents and had overseen Bucks and Montgomery counties.

In his plea memo, the feds noted that he recruited many union members for his "Shadow Gang" out of the apprentice school and the union's softball team, letting them know if they wanted jobs, they had to do "nightwork" - crimes on behalf of the union.

Under the terms of Prophet's plea agreement with the government, he would receive a sentence of five years in prison if the judge accepts his plea.

O'Donnell was also a business agent. He oversaw parts of Philadelphia. But, out of the four business agents, he "was by far the least aggressive when it came to forcing non-union contractors to hire union ironworkers," Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Livermore wrote in O'Donnell's plea memorandum.

The memo said there is no evidence O'Donnell ever personally engaged in or told anyone to participate in "nightwork." O'Donnell "was so passive in dealing with non-union contractors" that Dougherty "plotted to remove him from office," the memo said.

O'Donnell pleaded guilty to a charge of racketeering conspiracy. Under the terms of his plea agreement, he would be sentenced to six months in prison plus six months of home detention if the judge accepts his plea. The feds would also drop an extortion charge.

But Baylson said he thought such a sentence for O'Donnell was too lenient. "I am doubtful, to be candid, that I am going to accept this," the judge said. He noted that the advisory-sentencing-guideline range for O'Donnell's "conduct is substantially higher than six months."

Ritchie pleaded guilty to the three counts he faced - racketeering conspiracy, violent crime in aid of racketeering, and extortion. In his plea memo, the feds said many in the union saw him as "a Dougherty protege" who often bragged to Dougherty about his willingness to be aggressive.

Under the terms of his plea agreement with the government, Ritchie would be sentenced to four years in prison if the judge accepts his plea.

The court set sentencing dates in April for the three defendants. On or shortly before those dates, Baylson is expected to indicate whether he plans to accept the plea agreements.

If he does not, the defendants can either ask for a trial or plead guilty in the case with the knowledge that the judge will decide their sentences.

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