Jones: Henon works for whom - voters who elected him or union that pays him?

Councilman Bobby Henon faces scrutiny as part of a larger probe of IBEW Local 98.

THE INHERENT conflicts of interest between Philadelphia's union bosses and political figures were brought sharply into focus by last week's FBI raids on Electricians Union leader John Dougherty and City Council Majority Leader Bobby Henon.

To be clear, neither man has been charged with a crime, and we don't yet know what the FBI was seeking, though multiple published reports say the raids focused on the union's finances. In my view, the raids reiterated that the connection between Dougherty and Henon, who serves as City Council's majority leader while simultaneously working in a paid position for the Electricians Union, is improper on its face.

The reason is simple. The Electricians Union - and the Building Trades Council that Dougherty also runs - annually benefits from hundreds of millions of dollars in city-funded contracts that Henon is in position to influence or vote upon. For that reason alone, Henon should not be permitted to work for the union while serving on City Council.

I asked the executive director of the City's Ethics Board to weigh in on the question, and, while J. Shane Creamer would not address Henon's issue directly, he pointed to section 20-607 of the Philadelphia Code.

"The existing conflict of interest rule in the ethics code would require any city official to recuse himself from any matter involving an issue where they have a direct financial interest or have a financial interest through an outside business they are employed by," Creamer said.

Given that Henon is paid by a union that benefits from city contracts, his situation would appear to fit the bill.

But for me, as a black Philadelphian, there's an even more troubling aspect of Henon's side gig than the apparent conflict of interest, and that's the racial bias that exists in the building trades.

For decades, skilled building trade unions such as the electricians and carpenters have largely excluded blacks and others from union membership. And since city construction contracts require union labor, the lack of minority union members means fewer skilled workers of color on city-funded worksites.

The numbers bear this out. In Fiscal Year 2015, white men made up over 73 percent of the skilled workers on city-funded projects with contracts over $250,000, according to a study by Econsult.

In other words, while whites make up less than half of the city's population, three out of four skilled workers on big-money city contracting jobs are white men.

Many in the building trades have tried to justify that disparity by saying that people of color are unqualified to do skilled construction work. The Econsult study found the opposite to be true.

Nearly 41 percent of qualified skilled minorities in Philadelphia were available for the work in FY 2015, but only 26.8 percent were used.

So let me get this straight: People of color make up more than half of the city's population, but we are systematically excluded from doing skilled work on big-money contracts funded by our tax dollars. Even as this problem persists, the majority leader of City Council is on a union payroll, and he reports directly to the man who runs the entire Building Trades Council.

That's wrong, and it doesn't take an FBI investigation to figure that out. If the unions are blocking job opportunities for people of color, City Council's majority leader should not be working for them. He should be working against them.

Instead, we are forced to watch a bizarre display of political cronyism play out between City Hall and the union hall.

I contacted Henon's spokeswoman for comment. She didn't respond by press time Tuesday. But in truth, Henon, who, ironically, sponsored a bill that would toughen the conflict of interest rules, is not the only one at fault.

All of our political representatives must put the people before their political contributors. And when it comes to political contributors, the Electricians Union is huge.

The political watchdog Committee of Seventy reported that Dougherty's International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 made at least $1.2 million in political contributions in 2015; another tally suggests Mayor Kenney benefited from at least $507,000 from IBEW. The New Jersey Carpenters Union gave at least $725,000 to a separate political action committee that supported Kenney for mayor.

In fact, nearly every member of City Council received campaign money from IBEW. That's all perfectly legal, and I can live with that.

But no campaign contribution should buy silence, no affiliation should take priority, and no job should come before the people.

Henon can be an effective Council member while still being affiliated with the unions that helped to make his political career. But he can't work for them.

That's a conflict that must be resolved.

Solomon Jones is the author of 10 books. Listen to him mornings from 7 to 10 on WURD (900-AM).

sj@solomonjones.com

@solomonjones1