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Testimony: Even in Texas, people were wary of Philadelphia ironworkers union

Even in Texas, testified business owner Suzanne Lee, Philadelphia's Ironworkers Union Local 401 was reputed to be one group you didn't want to cross.

Even in Texas, testified business owner Suzanne Lee, Philadelphia's Ironworkers Union Local 401 was reputed to be one group you didn't want to cross.

But when one of her best customers at Ultimate Tower Service Inc. asked her to work on a 1,000-foot television tower in Roxborough, she overcame her reluctance, she told a federal jury Tuesday.

"We had multiple jobs from the owner of the tower, American Towers, and we didn't want to turn any work down," Lee said. "But we didn't want to come to this area."

Testifying in the racketeering trial of Local 401 boss Joseph Dougherty, Lee described how her efforts to placate the union soured "from day one."

She called the Local 401 business office, advising them that her husband and three workers were coming east from the suburbs of Dallas with their specialized tower equipment and that they "wanted to work with the union," she told Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert J. Livermore.

Lee said she was put in touch with union business agent Edward Sweeney, who told her her firm could do the job - if she used two union ironworkers. Veteran ironworker James Walsh, the only Local 401 member certified to climb an antenna tower, and a union apprentice were assigned to work with Ultimate Tower's crew.

"Did you need them to do the work?" asked Livermore.

"No, not at all," replied Lee, adding that she had to pay Walsh from $80 to $90 an hour - far more than her employees made - with no real work for him to do.

"I did it so my guys felt safe and we didn't suffer any equipment damage and none of my guys got injured," Lee said.

Lee testified that if her company's equipment had been damaged, "I would have been out of business."

Prosecutors alleged that Dougherty, 73, Local 401's business manager for 16 years, used intimidation, extortion, arson, and violence to ensure that union members did the steel work at construction sites in the region.

Sweeney, 55, was one of 11 ironworkers charged with Dougherty who, like Walsh, has already pleaded guilty.

Walsh, 50, began testifying late Tuesday reviewing "night work" - the Local 401 euphemism for after-hours arson and sabotage on nonunion sites - he performed including the pre-Christmas 2012 attack and fire at a Quaker meetinghouse construction site in Chestnut Hill.

Walsh returns to the witness stand Wednesday.

Lee said Walsh regularly argued with and threatened her husband, refused to climb the tower where her crew was to switch out several antennas, and on one occasion dropped all his tools from the 1,000-foot structure.

Within days, Lee testified, she was on the phone with Dougherty, demanding that Walsh be fired.

In a court-ordered wiretap of that call played for the jury, Dougherty is heard agreeing that Walsh had to go.

And in questioning by defense lawyer Fortunato N. Perri Jr., Lee said Dougherty "seemed surprised, and he seemed willing to help us out."

Perri has argued that Dougherty had nothing to do with union violence and that it was the work of business agents such as Sweeney, trying to consolidate their power within Local 401.

Walsh was not fired, Lee said. Instead, she said, Sweeney came out to the job site, threatened to kill her husband, and left after calling her in Texas, telling her "this isn't over and he wasn't done with me."

215-854-2985 @joeslobo