Calling his client’s indictment a “travesty of justice,” the lawyer for Philadelphia City Councilman Bobby Henon denied on Thursday that there was anything criminal about his client’s relationship with powerful labor leader John J. Dougherty and vowed to give prosecutors a bruising fight at trial.

Attorney Brian J. McMonagle scoffed at the government’s depiction of his client as a corrupt politician who sold out his constituents to serve the demands of the union boss paying his salary.

“If you look around this city, you’ll see a lot of skyscrapers,” McMonagle said. “They’re not built by robots. They’re built by hard-working union men and women. Unfortunately, yesterday’s indictment is a reflection of the fact that the government wants to make sure that the political power in this city stays inside those buildings, and not with the men and women who built them.”

The fiery remarks defending Henon as a champion of union workers citywide came as the councilman made his first appearance in federal court Thursday and pleaded not guilty to conspiracy, bribery, and fraud charges that threaten to send him to prison for decades.

A trial could be 18 months away, but questions about Henon’s political future already were being whispered in city power circles. In his Sixth District, a caucus of Democratic ward leaders proposed for Friday was postponed. The topic was to be support for Henon in May’s primary elections. No challenger has publicly emerged.

On Wednesday, prosecutors accused Dougherty, 58, and Henon, 50, of selling out the very union workers McMonagle mentioned. The pugnacious labor leader known as “Johnny Doc” and accomplices, they said, drained Local 98 of more than $600,000 over six years to enrich themselves.

They portrayed Henon as a mere puppet, swept into Council in 2011 with money from Dougherty’s union, then later used as a tool by the union boss to benefit his personal interests.

The councilman allegedly misused his oversight of key city committees to shut down nonunion installation projects at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and to squeeze Comcast Corp. executives to assure that a company owned by one of Dougherty’s friends received lucrative contracts tied to Comcast’s renegotiation of its 15-year franchise agreement with the city.

In exchange, Dougherty purportedly showered Henon with benefits including tickets to Eagles games and a $73,131 annual union salary for a do-nothing job.

Dougherty has denied any wrongdoing and is scheduled to make his first court appearance Friday afternoon, along with the six others charged.

McMonagle’s animated comments in the bitter cold outside the federal courthouse on Market Street contrasted with Henon’s subdued demeanor inside.

During a perfunctory proceeding, U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth T. Hey ordered him to avoid all contact with potential witnesses, accepted his plea, and let him go on a $50,000 recognizance bond.

Henon said nothing while he waited for his case to be called. He was also a no-show earlier in the day at Council’s regular meeting.

That didn’t stop tongues from wagging at City Hall. Council members and their aides buzzed about Henon’s future during the pre-session Democratic caucus meeting. Responses fell into three camps.

Some members said the allegations against Henon and other officials of the union he still works for, Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, were serious enough to discuss whether he should remain as majority leader.

Another camp said Henon is presumed innocent and should keep his leadership post and stay on Council until his case is heard in court. A third group of Council members wouldn’t talk about it.

Council President Darrell L. Clarke said Henon must decide if he should continue to represent the Sixth District, which sweeps up the Delaware from the river wards to lower Northeast Philadelphia. Henon has said he will not quit.

“There’s no provision for a councilman to be removed based on an allegation,” said Clarke, adding that he had read parts of the indictment. “There are very significant allegations and serious allegations. They’re extremely troubling. My understanding is the councilman and Mr. Dougherty have said they’re going to fight the charges.”

As for the majority leader post, Clarke sidestepped, saying, “Any change in leadership will be determined by the body.”

Councilman Bill Greenlee, the Democratic deputy whip, said that Henon’s seat was a matter to be decided by Henon and his district’s voters, but that his leadership post is an appropriate matter for Council to discuss.

“As far as the leadership, I think there’s some concerning issues, and I think there needs to be some discussion on that,” Greenlee said.

Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, the majority whip, said it would be “premature” to predict how Council might respond on Henon’s leadership post. “Does it give one pause as an elected official?” she said of the indictments. “Absolutely.”

Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell also said her colleagues should consider whether Henon remains in leadership.

“We have to meet together with the Council president and see what people think,” she said. “Leadership, we have to talk about.”

Taking a wait-and-see stance were Council members Curtis Jones Jr., Allan Domb, Kenyatta Johnson, Helen Gym, and Mark Squilla. Council members Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and Cherelle L. Parker declined to comment.

In the evening, Local 98′s political juice was on display at a Center City fundraiser for Mayor Jim Kenney, sponsored by the union and the Philadelphia AFL-CIO. Marita Crawford, Local 98’s political director, who also was indicted Wednesday, served as a host.

A sign is posted in Del Frisco’s Grille on South Broad Street as Local 98 and Philadelphia AFL-CIO sponsor a fundraiser for Mayor Kenney.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
A sign is posted in Del Frisco’s Grille on South Broad Street as Local 98 and Philadelphia AFL-CIO sponsor a fundraiser for Mayor Kenney.

Kenney and Crawford slipped out the back, through a service entrance at Del Frisco’s Grille on South Broad Street, after the fundraiser, apparently to avoid speaking to reporters waiting for them. Tickets went for $2,500, $5,000 or $11,900.

Pat Eiding, president of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO, told reporters the federal indictments were unfair.

“I think it’s disgusting the way they laid it out, quite honestly,” Eiding said. “I think it’s a total disgrace. I think their intent is to take these people down, even if they’re innocent.”

Eiding said he wasn’t aware of anyone skipping the event because of the charges. “Shame on them if they did,” he said.

Read more on Johnny Doc and the investigation: