John Dougherty, center, walks to the federal courthouse in November 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Former Philadelphia electricians union leader and convicted felon John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty is headed to the federal courthouse in Center City this week to face charges that he embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Dougherty, who was once a hugely influential political force in the city and statewide, is trying to avoid another loss in court — and possible jail time — following his conviction on corruption charges two years ago. 

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has already secured guilty pleas in the embezzlement case from four former employees of the union he led, Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). 

They’re now trying to convict Dougherty and a codefendant, former union president Brian Burrows.

Prosecutors handed down both the corruption and embezzlement charges in a blistering, lengthy indictment in January 2019. It alleged that Dougherty and the others together spent $600,000 from Local 98 accounts on a wide variety of personal expenses.

As the former union leader and his lawyers head to court, a possible third trial on separate extortion charges also looms, and Dougherty has reportedly been scrambling to cover his extensive legal costs. 

Will he go to prison? ‘Odds are decent’

Dougherty, who is 63, could theoretically get up to 20 years for his corruption conviction alone.

The other two sets of charges make prison even more likely, given their seriousness and allegations of physical coercion by Dougherty’s nephew, according to Michael Levy, a retired former federal prosecutor who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania law school.

“The political corruption cases usually draw jail time,” Levy said. “If he’s convicted on the embezzlement case, that’s a real serious breach of trust of the union members. The other one, if he’s convicted on that —  it’s a violent crime. I would say the odds were decent that he’ll go to jail.”

Whether that happens and for how long depends in part on the preferences of Judge Jeffrey Schmehl. 

The judge gave 3.5 years to former City Councilmember Bobby Henon, Dougherty’s co-defendant in the corruption prosecution, which suggests Doc could get something similar in that case, Levy said. At the end of the corruption trial, Dougherty’s lawyer argued he shouldn’t be immediately imprisoned in part because he’s taking care of his wife, who is at home with serious medical issues.

Schmehl has apparently held off on deciding on jail time until all three cases are resolved, Levy said, at which point he may give one unified sentence. At the sentencing hearing, defense lawyers could present mitigating information in an effort to have Schmehl give a shorter sentence or no jail time at all. 

Dougherty can also appeal his convictions after he’s sentenced, which would launch another lengthy legal process and could keep him out of federal custody for years.

Where did the embezzled money go? Groceries, among other things

The indictment provides a laundry list of personal expenses charged to Local 98 by Dougherty, Burrows, and four others union members.

They had a union contractor work on their homes, doing things like fixing a broken staircase, remediating termites, and doing plumbing work at a now-defunct pub two members ran in a Pennsport building owned by Dougherty, prosecutors say. 

Local 98 also paid for work on homes owned by the union’s boss’s brother, state Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty, as well as his daughter and sister, per the indictment, and the union’s credit cards were allegedly used to pay for restaurant meals, clothing, furniture, travel, and home supplies from Target and other stores. 

John Dougherty walks to the federal courthouse in Philadelphia in October 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The indictment lists in great detail the groceries purchased, such as seven honey-baked hams and sides that Dougherty bought to give as gifts. On a reimbursement form, the union leader reportedly described that purchase as “Toys and Turkeys (for food baskets).”

Funds also went to buy Lucky Charms cereal, frozen pizza, potato salad and soup from Famous 4th Street deli, frappuccinos, processed cheese spray, and Del Frisco’s lemon cake, among many other delicacies listed in the indictment.

The pile of details could make for a long trial as prosecutors present one credit card record after another and trace the route of every chuck steak and diaper pail refill bag, said Levy, the Penn Law prof.

“That’s a paper-intensive case,” he said. “You show what was purchased and you have to show where it ended up. The fact that the carpeting was purchased doesn’t mean it didn’t end up in the union hall. You’re going to need witnesses to say, here’s the carpeting, and it was installed in Dougherty’s home or somebody else’s home.”

How did Dougherty and Local 98 become so influential?

A South Philly native and electrician by training, Dougherty became business manager of Local 98 in 1993 and turned it into a powerhouse. 

The organization grew to about 5,000 members and funneled millions of dollars from their dues to local and state political campaigns, while lobbying officials to pass laws favoring organized labor and creating work for union electricians.

In the two decades preceding the indictment, the union’s PAC gave more than $30 million to candidates and political committees, and it remains a major supporter of candidates for City Council, the state legislature, and other offices. 

Dougherty helped get two mayors elected — his longtime friend Jim Kenney and, before that, John Street — and the union backed his brother’s successful state Supreme Court run. The union helped marshal support for Kenney’s signature legislation, a tax on sweetened beverage that supports park and library upgrades, pre-K programs, and the city budget.

Local 98 campaigned for Barack Obama and many other prominent Democrats, and has also supported the occasional Republican. John Dougherty himself ran in 2008 for Pa. Senate with the union’s backing, but fell short in the Democratic primary.

John Dougherty speaking at a rally in December 2018. (Max Marin/Billy Penn)

Dougherty and the union also gained a reputation for highly visible pressure campaigns at non-union construction sites, sometimes reportedly going as far as getting violent. 

They brought huge inflatable rats to picket lines and used a drone to spy for undocumented workers. In 2016 prosecutors investigated two incidents at a condo project in South Philadelphia: one where a Local 98 crew and non-union workers allegedly threw bricks at each other, and another where Dougherty allegedly broke a man’s nose.

Eagles tickets, assault allegations, and a spurned plea deal

In 2011, Local 98 got its political director Bobby Henon elected to a City Council seat representing Northeast Philadelphia. In addition to performing his legislative duties, Henon took orders from Dougherty and used his position to do the union boss’ bidding, as laid out in the 2019 indictment. 

Henon drafted legislation, arranged private meetings, called hearings, and voted for or against bills in order to help Dougherty attack his rivals in other unions and pressure big companies like Comcast to hire Local 98 electricians, according to the federal prosecutors. In exchange, he received a $70,000 annual salary for a union job that required little work and received other perks, like tickets to Eagles games.

During the trial in 2021, prosecutors played dozens of wire-tapped phone calls in which Henon, Dougherty and others strategized about how the councilmember should use his position to further the union leader’s goals. Lawyers for the two men argued there was no actual bribery, and that Henon’s pro-union activities in City Council were motivated by his genuine beliefs and desire to help his constituents.

The jury ultimately found them guilty on the majority of counts. They were both forced to quit their jobs, and Henon reported to federal prison this past April.

The separate extortion indictment, which may lead to Doc’s third trial, says his nephew Gregory Fiocca sometimes failed to show up for his job as a Local 98 shop steward at a job site, and when he wasn’t paid for the hours he was absent, assaulted a company manager. 

After Dougherty threatened to pull electricians off the job and prevent the company from getting future projects, Fiocca continued to get paid despite doing little work, prosecutors say.

The government offered to resolve both cases if Dougherty agrees to plead guilty to the embezzlement count and serves a short prison term, the Inquirer reported. He refused the offer, which led his longtime attorney to quit and left the former union leader struggling to find a new lawyer he could afford, according to the newspaper.

At this point, he’s lost two jobs that had been earning him close to $500,000 a year. As of earlier this year, he reportedly still owed his lawyers large sums for his first trial. However, resolution of a legal dispute with Local 98 over insurance coverage for legal costs ended up providing him with enough cash to hire legal counsel for the embezzlement trial.

The start of jury selection is set for Wednesday, Nov. 1, according to court records, and the trial itself is scheduled to begin next Monday — the day before Philadelphia elects a new mayor.

Ed note: This headline has been updated to more accurately reflect Dougherty’s former title.

Correction: This story has been updated to note Burrows and Dougherty are being tried together.

Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...