The James A. Byrne U.S. Courthouse sits catty-corner from the site of the Liberty Bell Center, which now houses the bell and tells its story. On the courthouse façade is engraved “justice the guardian of liberty.” In a small, wood-paneled twelfth-floor courtroom, simply adorned with the Great Seal of the United States and paintings of former judges, a jury of seven women and five men were prepared to render justice for John Dougherty and Bobby Henon.
It had been more than five years since the (first) FBI raid on Dougherty’s home, but when the first verdict was pronounced, the target of the investigation looked as if he had aged much more than that. His face was puffier and more deeply creased; his expression was resigned. Henon too looked heavier and wearier. In the back of the courtroom, one light fixture was dark — a burnt-out bulb or a sign of a power outage?
By the time the verdict was pronounced, the court case had stretched into its seventh week, including four days of jury deliberations. It ended with a resounding victory for prosecutors. Dougherty was found guilty on 8 of 11 charges, including conspiracy to commit honest services fraud and seven counts of honest services wire fraud. Henon was found guilty on 9 of 17 charges, including conspiracy to commit honest services fraud, bribery, and 8 counts of honest services wire fraud. (The pair were found not guilty on a few counts of honest services wire fraud, and Henon was found not guilty on some bribery counts.)
In other cities, recent corruption scandals were followed by changes in law or practices or other appreciable action steps; in Philadelphia, the conviction of one of the city’s most powerful political figures and an influential Councilmember led to no reform moment or reckoning.
In a post-trial interview, one juror said, “This was a real lesson in Philadelphia civics and how Philadelphia government works — and it was appalling.” After noting that “there’s a lot of enabling of John Dougherty and Bobby Henon in City Hall,” the juror concluded that the trial “made me more aware than ever that Philadelphia politics has a lot of cleaning up to do.”
Jim Kenney offered a distinctly less urgent take on the convictions: “I feel bad for the fact that they work really hard in bringing a lot of good things to the city.” He held out no hope that the guilty verdict would bring any positive change. “It’s not like it hasn’t happened before,” Kenney said. “People have been convicted before and the city moves on. That’s the way it goes.”
Yet candidates who had received Local 98’s backing in a Pennsylvania congressional race and a statewide judicial race faced ads linking them to Dougherty and his corruption charges. Both candidates lost. At least outside Philadelphia, connections to corruption were seen as a significant negative.
Even after the verdict was announced, a not insignificant number of commenters continued to echo the defense that Dougherty had simply been looking out for working people (even when he was using the power of a public official to get a little something for himself) and Henon had been serving the cause of organized labor (even when he was using his authority and public resources to craft secret side deals to help Dougherty or to fight his patron’s petty battles).
Dougherty himself declared, “What Councilman Henon and I were found guilty of is how business and politics are typically and properly conducted.” Many in Philadelphia’s chattering class agreed and groused that the case seemed trivial, thin, or flimsy — or that it only showed that Dougherty and Henon played the game the same as many others. Neither the mayor nor the Council president was ever made to publicly address their wiretapped conversations with the defendants.
They were certainly not alone. Most among the Philadelphia political class had little to say about the convictions or saw any need to change anything in their wake. Philadelphia’s recently elected progressive office-seekers and others who had won election without the support of the traditional Democratic Party structure had infused city politics with a jolt of popular engagement, but they remained conspicuous in their collective silence about the Dougherty and Henon convictions and corruption-related matters in general. The fact that many of them had won office with Dougherty’s support certainly complicated their thinking.
But, whether trying to not offend fellow officeholders who they were looking to for support for legislative initiatives, attempting to mend political fences or build bridges with those who embrace the more transactional nature of Philadelphia politics, or simply unconcerned about the convictions and their implications, neither Philadelphia progressives nor other independent political actors expressed much enthusiasm for an anti-corruption agenda or anti-corruption activism.
Maria Quiñones Sánchez — a then district Councilmember who won office without the support of the Democratic Party organization — was the only member of City Council to call for Henon to resign after the verdicts were announced (she had previously called for him to step down from his position as Council majority leader while under indictment). Additionally, she introduced legislation to limit Councilmembers’ outside employment in the wake of the trial’s revelations. The legislation did not generate much initial enthusiasm among her colleagues.
“We will fight for the ideals and sacred things of the city, both alone and with many; we will revere and obey the city’s law and do our best to incite a like respect and reverence in those above us who are prone to annul and set them at naught,” Athenian oath.
Local 98 and the Building Trades Council threw Dougherty a “retirement celebration” fundraiser to recognize his departure from his public roles. Henon eventually resigned from City Council, months after the verdict. In a formal statement about the resignation, Mayor Kenney was content to focus his comments on the Councilmember’s service instead of his corruption: “While he must now face the consequences of his past decisions, it is important to evaluate the entirety of a person’s contributions to public service throughout their whole career.”
As a glimpse at Philadelphia politics at its most raw state, the trial showed that the “public” of “public policy” is little more than an afterthought to many in power in Philadelphia. It demonstrated how “touchable” Philadelphia government is at the highest levels. But, after the trial, there was no promise of new anti-corruption laws or reform measures from elected officials or civic leaders. In other cities, recent corruption scandals were followed by changes in law or practices or other appreciable action steps; in Philadelphia, the conviction of one of the city’s most powerful political figures and an influential Councilmember led to no reform moment or reckoning.
What followed was only the sense that another “one of us” was following a well-worn path from public prominence to prison, the confidence that the corruption and its toll on Philadelphia would continue, and the certainty that — without change — it would surely happen again.
The parade continues
In 2020, the city’s appointed inspector general wrote an opinion piece for The Inquirer. “We are finally shedding that corrupt and contented reputation,” she declared. “Bribery and payoffs are the exception rather than the rule and we have moved away from a culture of corruption, gradually becoming a city that cares about operating with integrity.” After trumpeting the accomplishments of her office, she reiterated a call to amend the City charter to make the Office of the Inspector General a permanent fixture in the government with broad jurisdiction to exercise its authority throughout city government. That call was unheeded by her boss, the mayor, and the City’s other elected officials.
The Inspector General’s Office, first established by executive order in 1984 to address corruption, fraud, and misconduct in city government, has been both empowered and diminished by mayoral administrations over its lifetime. In recent years the office has been responsible for referring a significant number of criminal cases for prosecution, but it has also been proactive, providing ethics training for City departments and developing enhanced whistleblower protections to address the nagging tolerance for corruption within the City bureaucracy. It has been a catalyst for integrity in a city that has lacked such an ethic. But the City’s elected leadership has refused to make the office a permanent part of City government or to extend its jurisdiction beyond the executive branch to include agencies headed by other elected officials — a clear sign that celebrating a move away from a culture of corruption would be premature.
Another sign is the continuous flow of malfeasance and corruption charges for Philadelphia public officials. Dougherty and Henon were just the latest officials to join the long line of march. While Dougherty and Henon were facing their legal troubles:
- A first-term state representative pleaded guilty to stealing from her own nonprofit organization before she took office and was sentenced to three months in jail. Her predecessor in that seat resigned after being convicted of bribery.
- A pair of brothers, longtime city employees and high-ranking officials in the Parks & Recreation Department and Managing Director’s Office, were charged with stealing from programs that were intended to support youth baseball and other recreational activities.
- Three Department of Revenue workers were charged with soliciting and accepting bribes in exchange for erasing fees owed by taxpayers.
- A Water Department supervisor was indicted for stealing equipment and reselling it for profit.
- A major Inquirer exposé highlighted malfeasance that reached up through the police ranks and into City Hall and the District Attorney’s Office to cover up alleged sexual assaults committed by a chief inspector on the force.
- A 2019 equity organizational assessment reported that Philadelphia’s court system operated under a “culture of nepotism, mistrust and racial tension.”
- A police sergeant was charged with crimes after being caught on camera pocketing cash during a drug raid and later encouraging another officer to lie to cover up the theft.
- A member of the Philadelphia Historical Commission filed a formal whistleblower complaint with the Inspector General’s Office in 2021 after “being directed by the Kenney Administration as a designee of the Commission for L&I to vote against designation for specific projects for what I can only tell were for development and political reasons.”
- In 2022, the former president of a neighborhood special services district faced charges that she took taxpayer dollars to cover personal expenses and support two nonprofits she controlled.
Sometimes the Philadelphia corruption follies seem like a self-referential farce. In 2020, the grandson of a former Councilmember and member of Congress pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 22 months in prison for soliciting bribes — while he was employed in the City Controller’s Office as a fraud investigator. The appointed city treasurer was indicted by federal authorities and charged with tax fraud, immigration fraud, and embezzling from an employer before taking his City position.
The name of Abscam-stung former congressman and federal inmate Ozzie Myers resurfaced in 2020 when he was indicted for bribing Election Day workers to stuff ballot boxes for various Democratic candidates. Myers — who had reestablished himself as a sought-after political consultant — was accused of taking fees from candidates and using the funds to pay election workers (a pair of election judges pleaded guilty to padding vote totals) to provide extra votes for the candidates. Dougherty’s Local 98 paid Myers more than $400,000 in preceding years for his political consulting services, and many well-regarded candidates employed Myers before he pleaded guilty in 2022 to conspiracy to deprive voters of civil rights, bribery, falsification of voting records, and other offenses. He was sentenced to 30 additional months behind bars.
Working to secure enough Council votes to pass the soda tax, Dougherty and Henon used whatever leverage they could employ. In one recorded conversation, Henon told Dougherty that one of his colleagues would vote for the tax in exchange for a deliverable — a “little, like, hug.” Dougherty responded, “Let him know that once you get this stuff, there’s gonna be a ton of major league jobs that his wife [is] more than qualified for.”
The Councilmember who needed the “hug” was not disclosed in the indictment that recounted that exchange, but City Hall insiders connected the dots to South Philadelphia Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson. Nearly a year to the day after Henon and Dougherty were indicted, Johnson and his wife were themselves indicted and charged in a bribery scheme where a nonprofit development organization allegedly paid Johnson’s wife as a consultant in exchange for the Councilmember’s use of councilmanic prerogative to facilitate favorable rezoning and land disposition. (After a trial resulted in a hung jury, they were acquitted following a second trial and Councilman Johnson returned to City Council where he was received with what was described as a hero’s welcome.)
Philadelphia has definitively not shed its corrupt-and-contented reputation — or reality.
Create a better “us” to build a better Philadelphia
Ultimately, it is not enough to change rules or laws. To fight the corruption that holds Philadelphia back, we must act differently. If we cannot bear to stand against “one of us” who engages in corrupt activities because too many ties bind us together, then organizing a different “us” to belong to is necessary in order to oppose corruption. Building an anti-corruption movement, slate of candidates, or even a formal local political party could create a countervailing force against corruption to which those of us who want to move Philadelphia could belong and force others to choose a side.
Such a collective, organized around a set of anti-corruption principles, could give Philadelphians a movement to belong to so we can split from those who do wrong by the city — and those who try to play both sides — so Philadelphia can refuse to consent to more corruption.
The city’s motto is “Philadelphia Maneto,” often translated literally as “let brotherly love continue” but probably more properly expressed as “Let Philadelphia endure.” The city will certainly endure, but we want it — and need it — to thrive.
In Boss Rule: Portraits in City Politics, J. T. Salter imagined a Philadelphia free of control by the political machine. Nearly a century ago, he envisioned a better Philadelphia, just as we do today, starting with a “civic-minded” electorate and “persons with character and ability” running for office:
The politician will do whatever the voters compel him to. If the voters’ standards in social values change, so will his. Then as now, he will be the embodiment of the basic attitude of the people. If the people are educated to think in terms of the common good, so must the politician be. His attention will necessarily be fixed more on public issues than on individual favors. A basket of groceries is of value today; but in the future, the personal gift of groceries will not loom so large in the voter’s mind as a living wage and a sense of social security. . . . This envisioned municipality will provide, or see to it that a person is provided with, adequate housing, light, heat, transportation, medical attention, work, and recreation, as well as adequate schools and the protective services of today. The citizen will then receive as his right from his city what a certain few now obtain from the politician as a favor.
The corrupting influence of the electoral imperative, the local fraud triangle, and a history of corruption and contentment have been and still are a drag on the city. By uniting against them, we can collectively give Philadelphia forward momentum. Without the weight of the corruption tax, we can both reduce the city’s high tax burden and invest in the programs and services that enhance city life. Without the sense that the fix is in, we can attract and engage new people and institutions and use that infusion of community activism to animate the causes, movements, and institutions that can animate the city in so many areas.
Without corruption and consenting as fundamental barriers to growth, Philadelphians can live the ideals expressed in the oath taken by Athenian citizens millennia ago:
We will never bring disgrace to this, our city, by any act of dishonesty or cowardice, nor ever desert our suffering comrades in the ranks. We will fight for the ideals and sacred things of the city, both alone and with many; we will revere and obey the city’s law and do our best to incite a like respect and reverence in those above us who are prone to annul and set them at naught. We will strive unceasingly to quicken the public’s sense of civic duty, that thus, in all these ways, we will transmit this city not only not less, but greater, better, and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.
Our future motto can be “Better Philadelphia Maneto.” We can make it so if we put an end to the consenting of corruption.
Excerpted from “Philadelphia Forward: Moving Past Corruption” in Philadelphia, Corrupt and Consenting: A City’s Struggle against an Epithet by Brett Mandel, pages 196-200, 214-216. Used by permission of Temple University Press. © 2023 by Temple University. All Rights Reserved
Brett H. Mandel is a Philadelphia-based writer and consultant who engages in civic activism and government reform when he is not serving as Chief Financial Officer and Utility Player for his start-up, Baseball BBQ. He has also served as the Executive Director of the National Education Technology Funding Corporation; Executive Director of the citizens’ organization, Philadelphia Forward; and Director of Financial and Policy Analysis for the Office of the Philadelphia City Controller. He is the author of “Minor Players, Major Dreams” and “Is This Heaven? The Magic of the Field of Dreams,” and co-author of “Philadelphia: A New Urban Direction.”
The Fix is made possible through a grant from the Thomas Skelton Harrison Foundation. The Harrison Foundation does not exercise editorial control or approval over the content of any material published by The Philadelphia Citizen.
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