He's Johnny-on-the-spot

PAC reports this week could shed light on Dougherty's Council picks.

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John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty as a 2008 candidate. He has since focused on raising money for others.

So far, by Philadelphia standards, it has been a boring municipal election season. If not for Milton Street, some competitive City Council races, and a sideshow in the Republican Party, the May 17 primary would be an absolute yawner.

Even so, keep an eye on the next round of campaign-finance disclosures, due Friday and likely to yield more evidence on one of the enduring questions of Philadelphia politics:

What is Johnny Doc up to?

John J. Dougherty is business manager of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. He's also a Democratic ward leader in South Philadelphia, former treasurer of the city Democratic Party, and head of perhaps the biggest independent political fund-raising body in Pennsylvania.

His union's political action committee has raised and distributed about $2 million annually to local and state candidates, turning Dougherty into a major political figure even though he lost his only run at public office, a state Senate race in 2008.

Political money is less valuable if you can't spend it, so Council's decision in 2005 to limit contributions was a threat to Dougherty's power. He sued and took his case all the way to the state Supreme Court, which ruled that the city had legal authority to limit the money pouring into local campaigns.

Then the union came up with a new stratagem: using its main political action committee to fund other PACs with names such as Philadelphia Phuture and Blarney PAC. Though most of the money originated with Local 98, the campaign-finance ordinance allowed each new PAC to donate an extra $10,600 - the city's limit for PACs - to the union's favored candidates.

So far, three candidates have been identified as recipients of the union's supersized largesse: Dan McCaffery, who ran for district attorney two years ago and is talking up a run for state attorney general; Councilman Bill Green, who has accepted $65,000 in the last two years from Local 98-related PACs; and Bobby Henon, Local 98's political director, who is running for the Council seat being vacated by Joan Krajewski.

Henon has received at least $31,800 this year from PACs funded mostly by Local 98, reports show.

Dougherty is supporting several other candidates in this year's Council races. The reports due Friday should disclose what donations they, too, may have received from Local 98-related PACs.

Dougherty and Henon declined to be interviewed for this article. Green says the donations to his race were lawful because the city ordinance does not bar PACs from giving through other PACs.

In April, Council moved quickly to close the loophole after newspapers detailed Local 98's use of it.

What's the big deal about an extra $30,000 or $40,000 in a local campaign?

Indeed, the money is peanuts compared with what used to flow in Philadelphia campaigns (and still flows in state races, thanks to a lack of caps in Pennsylvania law). Consider John F. Street's mayoral runs: Dougherty's union gave $383,500, the Laborers Union $559,000. Three law firms (Klehr Harrison, Ballard Spahr, and now-defunct Wolf Block) and their employees gave more than a half-million dollars each, records show. And as Street liked to remind people, big donations from would-be city contractors didn't begin with him.

But you'll also remember that Street won reelection in 2003 after federal prosecutors persuaded a judge to let them plant a listening device in his office. His city treasurer went to prison; his chief campaign fund-raiser died under indictment. More than 20 people were convicted in related cases.

Council's responses were the contribution limits and a new, independent Board of Ethics to enforce them.

Despite a tiny staff, the Ethics Board has been diligent and tough. Thanks to its investigations, three 2007 mayoral candidates and three current Council members signed agreements acknowledging violations of campaign laws. Henon acknowledged that Local 98 had secretly paid for anonymous leaflets aimed at mayoral candidates Michael Nutter and Bob Brady.

It was the Ethics Board, too, that first noticed Local 98's use of multiple PACs and proposed legislation to close the loophole.

To be sure, the city's rules aren't perfect. They still contain provisions that tend to favor incumbents, allowing them to seek maximum contributions year after year.

But there has hardly been a whiff of scandal over campaign money since Nutter took office in 2008, having defeated a multimillionaire, two U.S. representatives, and a state House leader, all with much stronger credentials as fund-raisers.

Sometimes boring is not so bad.

 


Contact staff writer Bob Warner at 215-854-2611 or warnerb@phillynews.com.