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The Dougherty Fallout

The reaction to the federal indictment of the union leader and his acolyte, Councilman Bobby Henon, raises two questions: Where’s the outrage? And: Is corruption now on the ballot?

The reaction to the federal indictment of the union leader and his acolyte, Councilman Bobby Henon, raises two questions: Where’s the outrage? And: Is corruption now on the ballot?

The gripping, 160-page federal indictment of Johnny Doc, Councilman Bobby Henon and others in that thing of theirs reads like a Sopranos script, complete with lines like “I don’t give a f— about anybody, all right, but f—ing you and us, and you know that”—that’s Henon to Dougherty—and “That $10 is going to cost their f—-ing industry a bundle”—that’s Dougherty to Henon, enraged that a tow truck driver had been unable to give him $10 back in change and thus directing his lackey to hold a Council hearing to investigate the company.

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The indictment—116 charges covering embezzlement, conspiracy, theft of services and fraud—chronicles some $600,000 in union funds that prosecutors allege Dougherty spent on himself and his cronies. It’s a picture of just how mundane corruption can be in Philadelphia: pricey steak dinners, yes, but also frequent runs to Target for baby wipes and Lucky Charms cereal. (Seriously, Lucky Charms? Hope that magical deliciousness was well worth it).

Perhaps it’s a sign that I’ve been around our Moscow on the Delaware town too long, but the run-of-the-mill nature of these corruption allegations surprises me not at all. In fact, there’s a genealogy to it: Buddy Cianfrani begat Vince Fumo begat Johnny Doc. Lucky Charms—like Fumo’s high-priced vacuum cleaners, purchased with “Other People’s Money”—are terrible, yes, and should be prosecuted. But it’s ultimately penny ante stuff that may erode confidence in the character of our public officials but—provided justice is ultimately meted out—doesn’t necessarily assault local Democracy itself.

“Sad,” the Mayor said, when asked his reaction to news of the indictment. “They have a long road to go and it’s going to be tough for them.”

What’s truly stunning about the Dougherty indictment, however, in addition to the Sopranos-like way these guys talk, is the degree to which it is alleged that Dougherty masterminded the stealing of our very Democracy. Henon, Dougherty’s former political director, gets paid $140,000 to be a Councilman—to work for the taxpayer, in other words—but he remained on Dougherty’s payroll at a cool $73,000 per year.

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Sadly, that’s not illegal, but is it any wonder, then, that Henon is seen throughout the indictment allegedly using his Council power to manipulate the wheels of government to serve Dougherty’s desires at our expense? At Dougherty’s instruction, the complaint alleges, Henon pressured Comcast to steer close to $2 million in electrical work to a Dougherty ally—work that was far pricier than other bidders—when Comcast was seeking Council approval of its 15-year cable lease with the city.

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Worse, when he learned that Children’s Hospital was having two MRI machines installed by non-union labor, Dougherty called a hospital official and, when told that the manufacturer had to install the machines in order for the warranty to be valid, the union leader wasn’t hearing it. “It is also an L&I violation,” Dougherty said. “You don’t want a city thing shutting it down.”

Hmmm, sounds a lot like, “Nice little business here, it would be a shame if something happened to it.” Lo and behold, Henon not once but twice saw to it that L&I intervened in the case and issued stop-work orders. If the predicate facts here are true—and presumably the quotes in the indictment are directly from wiretaps that will ultimately air in court—it’s pretty hard to get around the disturbing inference that an unelected labor leader weaponized a City Councilman and hijacked the work of city government for his own ends.

If that’s true, there should be full-throated condemnation from anyone and everyone in our public life. But do you hear that? I hear…crickets. With the exception of one brave soul out in Delaware County, I hear labor leaders like Pat Eiding and Pat Gillespie still genuflecting before the guy, despite the fact that the charge is he ripped off his own members. Their silence today is reminiscent of their silence when the Ironworkers torched a Quaker meeting house a few years back for using non-union workers.

Then, as now, would it have killed someone who supposedly answers to rank and file working people to say hooliganism is wrong? Why is it so hard, after reading the Dougherty indictment, to simply say: “If these allegations are true, John Dougherty betrayed the interests and values of those he represented”?

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And then there are the pols. Council President Darrell Clarke and Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, seeming sad rather than angry, both shrugged and deferred to Henon as to whether he ought to resign. Forget about the issue of whether what Dougherty and Henon have done is legal or not. A jury will decide that. But weaponizing a Councilman to carry out your private interests at a cost to taxpayers—and a Councilman allowing his office to be so used—is just wrong and ought to be condemned immediately in the court of public opinion.

Which brings us to our Mayor. Remember when Jim Kenney was eager to call for the resignation of Sheriff Jewell Williams at the very moment serious allegations of sexual harassment surfaced against him? Strange that the same instinct goes missing when the transgressors are Dougherty, Kenney’s blood brother ally, and his lieutenant, Henon.

When, a few weeks ago, the feds indicted Chicago Alderman Edward Burke on Dougherty-like fraud charges, Mayor Rahm Emanuel responded by calling for ethics reform with words it’s hard to fathom coming from Kenney, noting that Burke’s legislative accomplishments “can’t replace having a moral and ethical compass that informs your judgment of right and wrong…anything that brings shame to that means that we have lost our purpose and our guiding north light.”

“Now corruption will be on the ballot in the Mayoral and Council races,” says documentarian and erstwhile mayoral candidate Sam Katz. “Everyone will have to answer whether they’re with the corrupt bargain Philadelphia has made with itself, or not.”

Well, Emanuel is no saint, but contrast his call for a fix and his highfalutin oratory with Kenney, who said on Wednesday that the indictment “doesn’t involve this administration or myself or anybody that works for me.” He stressed that it was up to Henon to decide whether he should step down from Council or not. And then—incredibly—he sympathized with two public figures accused of bilking his city and hijacking his government:

“Sad,” the Mayor said, when asked his reaction to news of the indictment. “I grew up with him, [Dougherty], we lived around the corner from each other. Bobby I’ve worked with for years in Council. I’m sad for them and their families. They have a long road to go and it’s going to be tough for them.”

It was more than tone deaf. When governmental chicanery is revealed in non-banana republic systems, what citizens need is moral leadership. That Kenney, as of this writing, planned to go ahead and attend a pricey IBEW fundraiser last night is nothing short of disgraceful, and makes one wonder to what degree he shares Dougherty’s cynicism about the rest of us, a contempt that drips off the pages of the indictment.

You know that soda tax? Turns out, Doc and Henon were for it, the indictment alleges, not because it would fund pre-K or repair parks and rec centers. They wanted it in order to stick it to the Teamsters, which had run an ad in 2015 that hurt Johnny’s feelings.

You know that soda tax? Turns out, Doc and Henon were for it, the indictment alleges, not because it would fund pre-K or repair parks and rec centers. They wanted it in order to stick it to the Teamsters, which had run an ad in 2015 that hurt Johnny’s feelings. “It may have been a revenge plot by Local 98, but it wasn’t to do with me,” Kenney told reporters on Wednesday, claiming that the idea for the soda tax came from, of all people, Rob Dubow, his finance director.

But in the indictment, Dougherty tells a union official colleague, “Let me tell you what Bobby Henon’s going to do, and he’s already talked to [elected local public official]…They’re going to start to put a tax on soda again, and that will cost the Teamsters 100 jobs in Philly.”

Now, I don’t know who that mysterious elected local public official is, but all of it begs the question: Was Henon Dougherty’s only agent in city government? Hardly. Remember, Kenney put Dougherty’s now-indicted chiropractor in charge of zoning—reread that sentence; let it sink in—and that may be only one of the most egregious examples of Doc’s stunning reach. After all, local government and our nonprofit and private sectors alike are filled with those who, for years, have either done Dougherty’s bidding or looked the other way and enabled him. The list of those who have publicly stood up to him—like the young developers Matt and Michael Pestronk—is short indeed.

If this moment is to go beyond the by-now familiar narrative of yet another powerful leader felled by corruption—you know, our usual perp walk story—it will be because we’ve reached a tipping point. “This is potentially a big moment,” says documentarian and erstwhile mayoral candidate Sam Katz, who is among those few who have stood up to Dougherty in the past. “Now corruption will be on the ballot in the Mayoral and Council races. Everyone will have to answer whether they’re with the corrupt bargain Philadelphia has made with itself, or not. If you took Dougherty’s money with your eyes closed, you’ve been with it.”

Katz is right to point to the election as a telltale sign of whether, to revisit Paddy Chayefsky’s seminal movie Network, we’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. But, meantime, l’affaire Dougherty ought also to jumpstart a long overdue movement to reform Philadelphia’s Home Rule Charter, which was adopted in 1951, because, when you look at our history of corruption, it’s clear that, in addition to being populated by rogues, our system is rotten.

Why is it so hard, after reading the Dougherty indictment, to simply say: “If these allegations are true, John Dougherty betrayed the interests and values of those he represented”?

What would you reform? I’d start with term limits for City Council—we’re the only big city in America that imposes them on our mayor but not our council. And, if we take no other lesson from Henon’s fall from grace, can’t we at least agree that Council members should be prohibited from holding outside jobs?

To be fair, Henon is not the only Council member who moonlights. Years ago, I criticized then-Councilman Kenney for his six-figures in annual compensation from the Vitetta Corporation, an architectural firm. He called me, irate; he had bills to pay—I think he cited the cost of college tuition. Besides, he said, do you want a Council made up only of those who weren’t employable? “Get yourself a job in the private sector,” I told him. “The city government will survive without you.”

We should, as Philly 3.0’s Jon Geeting has argued here, remove from the Charter the prerequisite that a Council ordinance precede the selling of public land, thereby kneecapping Councilmanic Prerogative. And, as former Mayor John Street has held, we should make the Council President an at-large office, so that the Mayor and Council President both answer to all of the city’s residents.

Finally, we should eliminate row offices like the City Commissioners and Sheriff, and add an elected Public Advocate, as in New York. There, that position was most prominently held by Mark Green, who, had it not been for 9/11, looked likely to succeed Rudy Guiliani as Mayor in 2001.

The Public Advocate is a nonvoting member of City Council, serving as a type of ombudsman for the public and a watchdog of city agencies. Green recently told The New York Times that the office is about “watching out for all the people who don’t have lawyers and lobbyists to get access to city decision makers.” In a corrupt, one-party town where—as the Dougherty indictment makes plain—insiderism is the order of the day, an elected official charged with representing us sounds pretty good right about now.

I don’t know if these are the reforms we should pursue, which is why we’ve put together a small, diverse group to start kicking it around, with an eye toward publishing some ideas sooner rather than later. If you were to change our Charter, what would you do?

Meantime, read the Dougherty/Henon indictment. And then tell me if you feel the need, like I did, to take a shower. It’s hard to read it and feel proud of our city; all the more reason to roll up our sleeves, get to work and use the power of our vote to finally make our politics as kick-ass as the rest of our city.

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