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Why many Philly politicians still don’t want to talk about the convictions of ‘Johnny Doc’ and Councilmember Bobby Henon

Only the handful of longtime critics of Dougherty and his union’s political influence were eager to speak at length on Monday.

Many Philly politicians were reluctant to discuss union leader John J. Dougherty after his conviction on corruption charges.
Many Philly politicians were reluctant to discuss union leader John J. Dougherty after his conviction on corruption charges.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

The convictions of labor leader John Dougherty and City Councilmember Bobby Henon on corruption charges sent shock waves through Philadelphia’s political and labor communities.

But in a sign of the men’s longtime clout, many local elected officials were unwilling to speak publicly about the verdict Monday as they sorted through the political rubble after a federal jury reached guilty verdicts for Henon and “Johnny Doc,” the powerbroker whose electricians’ union helped elect scores of politicians across three decades.

Mayor Jim Kenney and Council President Darrell L. Clarke offered little more than perfunctory statements. And only a few of Henon’s fellow lawmakers had anything to say about their Democratic colleague, the first member of Council to face a corruption-related conviction in 15 years.

One exception was State Rep. Jared Solomon, a Democrat who represents Northeast Philly and has clashed with the union. He said the convictions show that Philadelphia must clean up its political culture, citing evidence that included wiretaps in which Dougherty, Henon, and others plotted to reward friends and punish enemies.

“You’re talking about seeking vengeance. You’re talking about moving underlying legislation for a mere slight. You’re talking about paying off favors and weaponizing city departments,” Solomon said. “So now we have to call it for what it is: plain and simple corruption.”

Privately, many Philly politicos pondered the potential for a power vacuum. Dougherty — who awaits two other federal trials — is the most significant Philly powerbroker to fall before a federal jury since former State Sen. Vince Fumo’s conviction on corruption charges in 2009. In both cases, the verdicts took down more than the defendants: Dougherty and Fumo led entire political machines.

Dougherty’s influence extends from the mayor’s office and Council to the state legislature and Congress. His union worked to maintain its influence ahead of the trial — its political action committee has raised $18 million since Dougherty and Henon were indicted in 2019.

The convictions could prevent Dougherty from holding a union leadership position for years. Under federal law, it’s illegal for people convicted of serious crimes to serve in any union role, as official or adviser, for 13 years after their conviction or after the end of their imprisonment, whichever comes later.

“Who steps into his shoes?” said Fumo, a onetime political ally who later became an archenemy. “I don’t think there is one labor leader in this city strong enough now to step into that job.”

Dougherty is now politically expendable, Fumo reasoned, and his clout may be divided among several labor leaders.

Democratic City Committee leader and former U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, who has also clashed with Dougherty over the years, predicted that IBEW leaders from Washington will appoint an interim director for Local 98. He said the union’s multimillion-dollar political war chest will keep it in the game.

“When you have that kind of money, you’re always going to have some political clout,” Brady said.

IBEW’s national office did not respond to a request for comment.

So far, Henon faces only scattered calls to step down — something he will not be legally forced to do until his sentencing in February.

For the most part, however, silence prevailed in City Hall. Clarke said that Council “has not been distracted by the trial, and remains focused on the urgent issues confronting our city,” while avoiding addressing whether Henon should resign. Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, a longtime nemesis of Dougherty’s union, called for ethics reforms and reiterated her stance that Henon should quit.

“He is entitled to his due process, but we are also entitled to have the cloud lifted from City Council, and I believe he should resign,” said Quiñones-Sánchez.

Beyond that, few chose to discuss the case.

Councilmember Cindy Bass declined to comment, as did Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, who is scheduled to face his own jury in an unrelated bribery case next year. Councilmembers Cherelle Parker, Helen Gym, Jamie Gauthier, Mark Squilla, Curtis Jones, Allan Domb, Derek Green, and David Oh did not respond to requests for comment.

”People are still processing,” said political consultant Mustafa Rashed. “Local 98 has been a very big presence in the city for a very long time, and it’s going to take time to figure out what this means.

Kenney, who benefited immensely from Local 98′s political spending in his two mayoral runs, was not called as a witness despite members of his administration taking the stand. His statement on Monday’s conviction amounted to a few sentences.

“We appreciate the jurors who have evaluated the case and rendered their decision,” Kenney spokesperson Kevin Lessard said.

Others have privately groused that the charges were unfair and that prosecutors have criminalized appropriate, if ugly, processes that are commonplace in Council. And some Philly politicos believe that the union was targeted by a justice system that turns a blind eye on everyday corporate corruption while coming down hard on labor.

For Quiñones-Sánchez, that last explanation doesn’t fly. She noted that the case turned on the conflict of interest created by the salary Henon collected from Local 98 while in office.

“There were a lot of City Council people that were pro-union before Henon,” she said. “There will be a lot of City Council people that were pro-union after Henon — without the direction connection and the payroll.”

Another issue that may be contributing to Council members’ silence: their side jobs. The case against Henon, who was Local 98′s political director before being elected, largely focused on the $70,000 salary he got from the union after taking office, with prosecutors painting the gig as a do-nothing job that constituted a bribe.

But Henon isn’t the only Council member with a side job, and ethics reform advocates are calling on the city to ban outside employment for elected officials.

Of the other 16 Council members, two reported outside income from law firms in their most recent filings, from 2020, and another from a real estate business. Two others reported ownership stakes in small businesses.

Patrick Christmas, policy director of the good-government group the Committee of Seventy, saw a “huge opportunity” for change that hasn’t been seen since the 2003 revelation that the FBI had bugged the office of then-Mayor John F. Street. While Street was not charged, prosecutors convicted two dozen other political players and the scandal spurred reforms that included campaign-contribution limits, creation of a city ethics board, and new regulation of lobbyists.

“The last time we had a massive corruption scandal, there was a wave of reform that followed,” Christmas said. “The big question now is: What happens next? … Philadelphia city government does have top-class public integrity laws and oversight, but obviously there are glaring vulnerabilities.”

Currently, Council members need only report basic details about their outside employment. Christmas said that the Committee of Seventy would support banning lawmakers from holding non-city jobs. Short of that, he said the city should at least require elected officials to disclose details about their side gigs, such as whom they report to and how much money they make.

But on Monday, there were no immediate signs that top city leaders intend to take the convictions as a reason for reform. In their initial statements after the jury’s decision was made public, neither Kenney nor Clarke raised the possibility of revamping public integrity rules.