Chester County committee cited in Convention Center lawsuit

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A year ago, amid customer complaints about costs and hassles of doing business at the Convention Center, management maneuvered the Metropolitan Regional Council of Carpenters union out of the center.

In the world of politics, the Chester County Democratic Committee is hardly a juggernaut.

At the end of 2014, it had just $3,194.99 in its coffers and, despite its efforts, has managed to elect only one Democrat to state office - Andrew Dinniman, a state senator.

So how did this small-potatoes political committee end up in a federal racketeering lawsuit filed against the Carpenters union by the Convention Center, seeking the court's protection "against multiple violent and intimidating acts"?

The answer lies in how both sides will leave no stone, or pebble, unturned, in their battle over who will call the shots at one of the city's largest drivers of economic development.

A year ago, amid customer complaints about costs and hassles of doing business at the Convention Center, management maneuvered the union, the Metropolitan Regional Council of Carpenters, out of the center.

Protests, picketing, and plenty of legal actions ensued as the union tried to regain its work in the building.

Meanwhile, the Convention Center, a public agency run by a politically appointed board, continued to host conventions and the carpenters continued to build buildings - and contribute to politicians and their committees, $8.9 million since 2005.

Carpenters Political Action of Philadelphia and Vicinity donations in 2014 - the year the union lost work in the center - more than doubled to $1.3 million, with the biggest donations to fund Tom Wolf's gubernatorial campaign.

In the courts, the 25-page racketeering lawsuit, filed May 7, lays out the center's complaints. Union pickets often blocked traffic around the center and, the suit contended, frightened staff by "ostentatiously" videotaping them.

The situation escalated, the suit said, during February's Philadelphia Auto Show, when the carpenters allegedly intimidated socialites attending a charity function and then allegedly "infiltrated the Convention Center and seized and disrupted the Auto Show through a variety of violent and obstructive means," vandalizing the cars and stuffing leaflets everywhere.

The lawsuit goes on to say that a letter-writing campaign urging Democratic leaders to boycott the Convention Center during the 2016 Democratic presidential convention in Philadelphia "already had its desired effect of inflicting economic damage . . . in the form of lost bookings."

How? Because Chester County's Democrats had vowed not to host events at the Convention Center, paragraph 79 noted.

"As Labor so often stands with us during election time, we are honored to stand with you in your dispute with the Convention Center," said an e-mail.

"I don't mean to be a smart guy," said the committee's solicitor, Paul Drucker, "but with all due respect, we're not large enough to consider holding an event there."

Speaking for the Carpenters union, Martin O'Rourke said, "Choosing the . . . committee as an example of lost business is frivolous and silly and it epitomizes how frivolous and silly the lawsuit is."

But if the Chester County Democrats can't afford to hold an event there, why did chairman Brian McGinnis send the e-mail?

The center's CEO, John McNichol, described it as "an empty gesture."

And Drucker? "Solidarity," he explained, pointing out that the Carpenters union helps with legwork during campaigns.

The union hasn't particularly helped with money, until recently. "No connection," the carpenters' O'Rourke said.

Of the $1.3 million donated in 2014, $1,000 went to the Chester County Democratic Committee - the only donation to it in a decade, despite many requests, a former party official said.

McGinnis referred questions to Drucker. "That e-mail was not purchased for $1,000," Drucker said. "I guarantee that Brian's e-mail had nothing to do with it."

And, on Dec. 4, Dinniman, the county party's most influential leader, received $2,000. The next day he got an additional $15,000. While the Carpenters union has regularly donated to Dinniman, the $17,000 was more than three times the highest previous donation. Dinniman could not be reached for comment.


jvonbergen@phillynews.com

215-854-2769

@JaneVonBergen

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