The FBI and the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office are investigating the confrontation in which Electricians union leader John J. Dougherty punched a nonunion contractor at a South Philadelphia worksite.
Prosecutors took on the case Tuesday, accepting a referral by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams. Williams said his "long-standing professional relationship" with Dougherty barred him from handling the matter.
So, the Attorney General's Office will now decide whether to file criminal charges in the Jan. 21 brawl, in which the contractor said Dougherty swung first, hitting him in the face twice and breaking his nose. Dougherty said he struck the man in self-defense.
A spokesman for Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane said her office would now weigh whether to charge Dougherty and three other union members who allegedly pummeled the contractor.
Kane spokesman Chuck Ardo said the decision would not be made by Kane but by other prosecutors on her staff. The attorney general will not have a role in the decision, he said, because she, too, faces a conflict because of her relationship with Dougherty.
An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment on the agency's interest in the melee. But two people with surveillance cameras at the scene of the fight said FBI agents visited them last week to ask about the altercation between contractor Joshua Keesee and Dougherty, business agent for the politically powerful Local 98.
James Reid, who operates Reid's Auto Service on South Third Street, where the clash took place, said he gave copies of surveillance tape from his business to two FBI agents several days ago. Reid said he also gave copies to police detectives, as well as lawyers for Keesee and Local 98.
His video, first made public on Philly.com on Monday, shows Dougherty and three companions advancing on Keesee as another man tugs at Keesee's back, apparently pulling him away in a peacemaking attempt. The video did not capture the exchange of blows.
Reid said he did not witness the incident.
James Daly, another resident of the block, also confirmed FBI interest in the case. He said agents had knocked on his door a few days ago and asked for any footage captured by security cameras affixed to his home.
Accounts differed about whether those cameras had recorded any images. Daly said the devices had malfunctioned before the incident and recorded nothing. Law enforcement officials, he said, attempted to view the footage and found nothing.
However, a technology consultant engaged by Keesee said he had viewed footage taken by the cameras. Patrick Esmonde said he went to Daly's house and was able to see footage leading up to the clash before Daly's father ordered him to leave.
Senior FBI officials on Tuesday declined to discuss the agency's inquiries about the street fight involving Dougherty, 55, long one of the most powerful political players in the city and state.
With command of a 3,800-member union - Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers - and a multimillion-dollar campaign war chest, Dougherty has seen his power grow in recent years. Dougherty, a Democrat, was a key backer of Mayor Kenney in his election last year.
Dougherty has been seen as reshaping his image of late, saying he was focusing more on policy and less on politics.
The fight was investigated by Philadelphia police. Keesee's lawyer, Robert Mozenter, has said police recommended that the District Attorney's Office file aggravated-assault charges against Dougherty and other union members.
In a statement Tuesday, Williams' office said he was removing himself from decision-making in the case because of "a long-standing professional relationship with Mr. Dougherty." The statement did not elaborate, nor did it say whether police had recommended criminal charges.
According to Kane's office, Williams' office sent her a letter Monday asking her to pick up the case because Williams had received campaign donations from Dougherty's union.
Questioned about the matter Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Williams, Kathy Martin, hung up on a reporter.
As for Kane's recusal, her office said she was leaving the matter to other prosecutors "to avoid the appearance of a conflict due to the high-profile nature of Mr. Dougherty, who was a donor to Attorney General Kane in 2013."
Both Kane and Williams have received sizable campaign contributions from Local 98, records show. In recent years, the union gave $17,500 to Williams' campaign fund and $20,000 to Kane's.
The statement from Kane's office did not mention that her law license has been suspended by the state Supreme Court while she awaits a pending criminal trial.
According to an initial police report on the fight, Keesee, 36, told the responding uniformed officers that Dougherty hit him with "a closed fist and three other males continued to punch and kick him."
In an interview, a witness, James Yates, said the clash began when Dougherty and his companions "charged" toward Keesee.
Frank Keel, a spokesman for Dougherty, declined to comment Tuesday.
On Monday, he issued a statement saying the Inquirer had irresponsibly reported on a "minor incident" because of "John Dougherty's recent court victory over the paper." That was a reference to a Feb. 3 ruling in which an appeals court reinstated a lawsuit Dougherty filed against the newspaper's lawyers over their tactics in a libel case.
In the statement, Keel said the union leader was the victim, not the aggressor, in the January incident, which unfolded on a worksite that has been the scene of union protests because some of the construction has been done by nonunion labor.
The statement accused Keesee of previously making threats against the union leader's wife and a daughter. When Dougherty challenged him over this when he met up with him at the nonunion worksite, "the contractor rushed John and threw a punch at his head," the statement said.
In the melee, Keel said, Keesee "sucker-punched one of the Local 98 picketers on the site, which required stitches for the Local 98 member."
In an interview Tuesday, Keesee, a graduate of Temple University who became an electrician, said he had never threatened Dougherty's family.
"It's just absolutely absurd," he said. "I never knew the guy in the beginning. Who in their right mind takes on John Dougherty?"
The dispute started after Dougherty and his fellow union members complained to Keesee that he had an Electricians union sticker on his truck even though he was a nonunion contractor.
Keesee said Dougherty demanded that he remove the sticker. He said he agreed, and one of Dougherty's fellow union members tried, without success, to scrape it from the truck's window.
He said the sticker was on the truck when he bought it five months ago.
"I bought the truck from a union shop," Keesee said. "It's not like I'm trying to pose like a union guy."
Staff writer Susan Snyder contributed to this article.