Electricians boss Dougherty dodges racketeering suit - for now, at least

IBEW Local 98 union leader John Dougherty speaks with members and family before start of Labor Day parade. A contractor who hit Dougherty with a racketeering lawsuit has withdrawn his federal court claim.

A nonunion electrical contractor who hit labor leader John J. Dougherty with a racketeering lawsuit after a caught-on-video job-site fistfight this year has quietly withdrawn his federal court claim.

But lawyers for Joshua Keesee, 37, said Wednesday that they intend to refile if they can find more evidence to bolster their case.

"We are anxious to strengthen our RICO claim against Mr. Dougherty," said lawyer Clifford Haines. "That's lawyer talk for: We're looking for more victims who are willing to come forward and say, 'Mr. Dougherty and his union have intimidated me, too.' "

Dougherty was named as a defendant in the case along with Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Frank Keel, a spokesman for Dougherty, said Keesee's decision "speaks for itself" and remained bullish on the labor leader's chances of prevailing should the case be revived.

"There has been no settlement and there will be no settlement," Keel said Wednesday night.

The withdrawal of Keesee's lawsuit lightens the legal load shouldered by Dougherty, 56, widely known as "Johnny Doc." He also is grappling with a sprawling federal criminal investigation involving nearly all aspects of his union's operations.

FBI agents fanned out across the city in August to serve search warrants on more than a dozen union offices and other sites tied to Dougherty and his close allies, including City Councilman Bobby Henon.

The warrants sought evidence of possible crimes including embezzlement of union funds, intimidation of nonunion contracts, and extortion by an unnamed government official. Sources familiar with the probe have said investigators also are examining Local 98's prolific contributions to political campaigns.

Dougherty has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

The January fight that left Keesee with a broken nose was one of two brawls involving Dougherty at the same South Philadelphia work site that federal agents are examining as part of their investigation.

In his lawsuit, filed in October, Keesee alleged that Local 98 fought the use of nonunion labor at the site - a townhouse project near Third and Reed Streets - purchasing a website domain in the name of the project's developer, and creating an internet site filled with derogatory information about the company.

Keesee took on the job of wiring the townhouses after the previous contractor backed out, saying his "guys no longer felt safe." According to the suit, he found himself scrapping with Dougherty and three other union members when they confronted him outside the work site with raised voices and racial slurs, telling him that nonunion workers were not welcome in South Philadelphia.

Keesee claims that Dougherty swung first, breaking his nose.

In an interview with the Inquirer in March, Dougherty insisted that Keesee was the aggressor and had sucker-punched a union member in the head so hard that he drew blood.

Dougherty's lawyers had not responded to Keesee's claims in court before the nonunion contractor withdrew his suit Tuesday.

But in a court filing earlier this month, they urged U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson to throw out the case, calling it a "frivolous" misuse of civil racketeering statutes, which require a plaintiff to establish a pattern of illegal activity.

Keesee's claims, they said, took one fistfight and exaggerated it into a pattern of intimidation for "shock value."

Baylson had not ruled on their request prior to Keesee's decision to drop the case.

jroebuck@phillynews.com

215-854-2608 @jeremyrroebuck