John Dougherty has been described as Pennsylvania’s most powerful political figure who’s never won an election.
Dougherty, 58, leads the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, along with the city’s Building Trades Council. He has led the electricians union for 25 years.
Over the years he has emerged as a major political donor, spending tens of millions of dollars through political action committees, mostly to help Democrats in Pennsylvania.
The powerful union boss has held an unmatched grip on construction jobs and politics in the Philadelphia region and beyond. He has wielded political power in the city and Statehouse.
Dougherty helped Mayor Jim Kenney win the election in 2015, the same year his brother, Kevin Dougherty, won a seat on the state Supreme Court.
He has not used his power in the trade unions and in politics for the best interest of the region. Dougherty’s union, like far too many of the building trades in Philadelphia, does not reflect the city’s diverse population. A look at the racial makeup of the work crews at construction sites in this city shows they are overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly non-Philadelphian.
But Dougherty’s negative influence in this city could be coming to an end, or at least greatly reduced.
On Wednesday, federal prosecutors announced that Dougherty has been indicted on embezzlement and fraud charges in an FBI investigation along with City Councilman Bobby Henon, a former union official who allegedly did his bidding, and six others.
The defendants include Henon, the Council majority leader and chair of the public property and public works committee; union President Brian Burrows; and union officials Michael Neill, Marita Crawford, Niko Rodriguez and Brian Fiocca, who is Dougherty’s nephew. Also charged was Anthony Massa, who ran a construction company that received more than $1.8 million from the union for work done between 2010 and 2016.
Federal prosecutors say Dougherty used union funds as “his own personal bank account.”
According to the 116-count indictment, Dougherty exerted complete control over the union, using that power to “repeatedly and persistently steal its funds and put his own self-interests over that of the membership.” All told, the defendants misspent more than $600,000 in union funds, officials said.
Dougherty used union credit cards to buy groceries and household goods and to splurge on restaurants, according to the indictment. He allegedly used union funds to pay contractors for work at his South Philadelphia home and bar. And he put friends and family members on the union’s payroll, showering them with raises and overtime for hours they didn’t work and using them to do personal tasks, prosecutors said.
Federal prosecutors alleged Henon got a $70,000 union salary to press Dougherty’s interests at City Hall and used his office to pressure Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Comcast Corp. and others to use union labor. Henon had been Dougherty’s political director before winning a City Council seat in 2011.
Dougherty and Henon have denied any wrongdoing. Both men should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, the indictment should have a serious impact on the powerful union boss and his political influence.
Dougherty’s tight grip on construction jobs and local and state politics may finally begin to loosen, which would be good for the city, region and state.