Philly’s Labor Fixer Crosses the Line
Before 2019, John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty Jr., the longtime business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 98, was one of the most powerful men in Pennsylvania. From 2000 through 2014, his union spent $25.6 million on political campaigns, even more than the state teachers union. Dougherty’s brother Kevin was elected to the state Supreme Court in 2015 with $1.5 million in help from Johnny Doc’s union on a slate that flipped the body to Democratic control. And power in Pennsylvania is power to deliver national majorities: The state delivered Joe Biden his 269th electoral vote of 270 needed to win in 2020.
But power corrupts, and Johnny Doc was corrupted. In their 2019 indictment, federal prosecutors alleged that the labor boss and political fixer had participated in an embezzlement scheme amounting to over $600,000, and that his relationship with then-City Councilman Bobby Henon (D) had turned from legal influencing into outright bribery.
Start with Johnny Doc’s influence over and through Henon, offenses for which a jury has already convicted both men. Henon was proud of his associations with Johnny Doc and IBEW Local 98. Local media noted that the former Local 98 political director called himself “John’s Boy.” After he was elected to city council, Johnny Doc kept Henon on the Local 98 payroll, paying him $70,000 per year.
The feds argued that this was a no-show job that operated as a simple bribe. Henon reportedly allowed Dougherty to issue demands that Comcast, which needed approval from a committee chaired by Henon for a major project, use a contractor preferred by Dougherty. That contractor pled guilty to providing Dougherty with $57,000 in free home and office renovations. Henon provided personal favors to Dougherty as well. The Wall Street Journal noted:
Another [criminal count] involves what happened after a towing company hauled away Mr. Dougherty’s car. The union boss raged about the incident to Mr. Henon, and the city councilman had his staff draft a resolution to hold hearings to investigate the towing company.
While the jury agreed with federal prosecutors that these schemes amounted to bribery and fraud, Dougherty had a different view. After his conviction, Johnny Doc told the press:
What Councilman Henon and I were found guilty of is how business and politics are typically and properly conducted. I will immediately appeal and have every confidence that I will prevail in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
The scary thing is, he may not be entirely wrong, at least in a moral sense. Compared to the millions in legal campaign contributions he handed out to Pennsylvania Democrats, how much did $70,000 per annum for a no-show job actually “buy”? And “prevailing wage” laws and “project labor agreements” are structured to ensure unions’ preferred contractors get government and even major private projects. Pennsylvania free-market activist Matthew Brouillette argued that Dougherty’s “tactics have ranged from questionable to illegal” and that he has “long been recognized as behind efforts to harass and intimidate builders who opt for non-union labor.”
But Dougherty is not just charged with using Henon to get what he wanted from city council. The feds have also charged the union boss with stealing $600,000 from the union in cahoots with other Local 98 officials. Local news website Billy Penn identified prosecutors as claiming Doc’s Union Pub and a multiuse residence in Philadelphia’s Pennsport neighborhood as having been renovated with embezzled funds. In 2021, federal prosecutors added additional charges, alleging that Johnny Doc had threatened a contractor that employed his nephew with labor trouble if it did not pay his nephew for full-time work—work for which his nephew was “a frequent no-show,” according to federal prosecutors as reported by Billy Penn.
Justice may be coming for Johnny Doc. He continues to assert his innocence and has expressed an intent to appeal his convictions as he awaits trial on the other charges. But the legacy of the political machine he built out of Local 98 will be with Pennsylvanians for some time.
Teamsters Traditions in the Windy City
Illinois wanted to build a high-flying film and television industry, and Alex Pissios wanted to be a part of it. But he needed some help to get the capital—millions in state grants and various tax breaks—to start his new studio, called Cinespace. He got the state benefits with the help of Illinois Teamsters boss John Coli Sr., a close ally of the state’s Democratic Party and then-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D).
So far, so shady but legal. But Coli was up to more than influencing. He wanted a piece of the action from the studio that hosted production of television series including Empire and Chicago Fire. In 2014, Coli began demanding five-figure quarterly kickbacks from Cinespace, and he might have gotten away with it if Pissios did not wear a wire for federal investigators. In a meeting recorded by the feds between a coached Pissios and Coli, Pissios claimed the missing money from the kickback scheme had been discovered. Coli told him to fire the discoverer. After Coli found that Pissios’s payment—which the feds had observed—was short, he threatened labor action against Cinespace in a textbook case of “labor peace” extortion.
The feds had their man. Prosecutors charged Coli in 2017 with taking at first $100,000 in extorted payments, with later superseding indictments raising the amount the government thought it could prove to $325,000. Then, despite having once boasted that “You can cut my fingers off, I wouldn’t talk,” Coli pled guilty in 2019 and turned cooperating witness. Shortly after Coli pled guilty, the feds indicted then-State Senator Tom Cullerton (D), at the time chair of the state Senate’s labor committee, for embezzling from local and regional bodies of the Teamsters Union by means of a no-show job provided by Coli. Cullerton would join Coli in pleading guilty to corruption charges and resigning his office in 2022.
In the next installment, more indictments of union officials follow.