The Most Powerful Player in Philadelphia

Image caption: A blurred image of Johnny Doc, wearing a 76ers hat and speaking into a broadcast news reporter’s microphone for an interview, is placed behind of Philadelphia’s City Hall building and over a dark red stamp imprint which reads “#CORRUPT.”

City Hall Photo by Bruce Emmerling; Collage by Alex Zahradnik

Story by Maddie Rose

The biggest player in the game  

Unions are often used as band-aids for workers’ struggles. Our economic system ensures workers are pushed as hard as possible, in the cheapest conditions possible, to receive the lowest wage possible. To unionize is to stand up and fight for the best interests of workers, but what happens when a union leader is even more corrupt than the CEOs?

This is a story of the Philadelphia chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, or IBEW Local 98. If the name doesn’t sound particularly impressive or intimidating, you may not know their history in Philadelphia politics. It’s not uncommon for unions to donate to political campaigns, supporting politicians that best represent workers’ issues. This union, however, goes far beyond that. IBEW 98 is the largest contributor to politics of any entity in Philadelphia — The Inquirer reports they spent $25 million on politics over the last 15 years.

Nearly every person who currently holds a council seat has received backing from the union. “We’re talking about an extra-powerful union that has tentacles throughout the city in a whole variety of political contexts,” said G. Terry Madonna, political scientist at Franklin and Marshall College.

The union members aren’t the ones calling the shots, either. The political power of the IBEW 98 is ruled by a single man: John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty. Ambitious and vengeful, he has led the union for almost 25 years and built deep connections throughout the city. “Johnny Doc” is arguably the most influential person in Philadelphia politics — and is currently under FBI investigation for it.

How to buy an election

Jim Kenney was originally considered an outlier for the position of mayor. That changed after the financial support sent from Dougherty and IBEW 98 through their Super PAC — totalling several hundred thousand dollars, according to donation records. And money was only part of that strategy. Dougherty organized a coalition of unions to meet at IBEW 98 headquarters over the span of several years to decide who to collectively endorse for mayor.

Their choice was Jim Kenney, who was the candidate Dougherty has been connected to since childhood. Dougherty’s mother is Kenney’s godmother, and they both attended the same prep school and university. It seems that only one vote mattered in the end to get Kenney in office: that of “Johnny Doc” Dougherty.

Kenney has made sure to repay the favor. As mayor, he appointed a particularly friendly  (and IBEW 98 loyalist) zoning board chairman. The chairman has a great deal of power over how many new developments are made within the city, which is especially important for many Philadelphians thinking about gentrification and housing costs. But new developments mean new jobs for those in the building trade, and a win for the building trade council (whose head is notably also Johnny Doc).

The union ties itself closely to city government. Councilman Bobby Henon is a longstanding IBEW 98 member as well as former lobbyist, and was elected through IBEW 98 donations. The Union’s database reports that he is still on their payroll for $70k in undisclosed union work every year, and reports directly to Dougherty. Meanwhile he has been fighting for new construction that would create jobs for the electrical workers — all from the soda tax. Dougherty was a major supporter of the tax, as was the councilman. Dougherty’s response to those who opposed Henon and the soda tax: “If you f— with my boy, I’ll f— with you.”

And Dougherty protects his “boys.” The Inquirer reports that the union invested several hundred thousand dollars in Kevin Dougherty’s run for a seat on the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. If the name sounds familiar, it’s for a reason — Kevin is John’s brother.

“Fear is not a bad thing to have on your side,” Dougherty said to a reporter once. It’s not a surprising approach for a man known to back candidates’ opponents as retaliation after they fail to endorse his friends. He explained to a reporter at WHYY-FM: “We don’t forget that stuff at Local 98. You’re good to us, we’re good to you.”

Phone taps, raids and more

Johnny Doc is no stranger to investigations. A 2006 FBI investigation showed probable cause to believe he had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in free renovations to his house and been evading taxes and misreporting his income. Ultimately, the contractor faced two years in prison. Dougherty was never charged with a crime.

Then, the FBI hit harder. Last year, his house was raided, along with IBEW Local 98 headquarters and the offices of Councilman Bobby Henon. At that point, sources told The Inquirer, an investigation was well underway for misuse of union funds, tax evasion, fraud, and more. Perhaps, they are curious about the union officials’ choice to spend tens of thousands on Eagles tickets, gifts from Coach, and spa services… or the union’s choice of paid consultants, which include politicians who have been found guilty of accepting bribes and misuse of taxpayer resources in the past.

One thing is clear: the FBI is determined to uncover the scope of Dougherty’s political influence, including his close ties with the mayor. The search warrant is asking for all communications from over 60 people and companies, Jim Kenney included.

If this investigation is seen through all the way, the FBI would have to admit to the residents of Philadelphia that most of their elections over the last 20 or so years were bought. Considering how easy this fraud and corruption seems to come to Philadelphia, maybe the elections will always find a way to be bought. Though it seems certainly easier if your name is Johnny Doc.

. . .

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