The focus of a federal investigation into the powerful Electricians union and its leader, John Dougherty, became clearer this week with the seizure of a computer belonging to an agent of the state Attorney General's Office.
According to the search warrant used in the seizure, federal agents are seeking evidence that union funds were embezzled and that contractors were intimidated by "use of economic fear." The warrant also cites possible extortion by an unnamed public official.
The FBI served the warrant Tuesday to gather information about a veteran agent, seizing his work computer at the agency's Philadelphia office, officials said. Sources familiar with the matter identified the agent as Joseph Ralston.
The warrant, in part, sought any communications Ralston had with Philadelphia City Councilman Bobby Henon, according to people familiar with the document.
Besides serving on Council, Henon is a $72,000-a-year staffer with Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Henon's office said he would have no comment on the latest raid.
Henon's City Hall and district offices were among the locations searched by federal agents Aug. 5. Federal agents that day conducted searches of more than a dozen locations tied to Local 98, including the union headquarters and the home of Dougherty, the union's business agent.
Ralston, 47, did not return calls to him at work and at his home. He has past economic ties to both Henon and Local 98.
He made a modest campaign donation to support Henon during his first run for Council in 2011. The following year, Local 98 paid him about $15,000 to provide private security services, U.S. Labor Department records show.
The FBI appears to be exploring Ralston's off-duty work as a private security contractor.
Among other demands, it sought GPS records for state vehicles used by Ralston to track his whereabouts.
The pace of the investigation remains quick.
On Wednesday, agents searched two more union-related locations in the Pennsport section of South Philadelphia, Dougherty's home turf. The addresses could not immediately be learned.
On Friday, Dougherty sent out a letter to his union's 4,700 members, saying Local 98 had hired top lawyers to defend "our union's good name."
"Here's the bottom line: If these investigations were simply about me, I'D RETIRE TODAY and save our union any additional headaches, but they're not," Dougherty emphasized in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Inquirer and Daily News.
"The scope of these investigations suggest a comprehensive attack upon multiple aspects of Local 98."
In the letter, Dougherty, who has built his local into a powerhouse in Democratic politics statewide, asserted that the union's record of political successes had brought a "harsh light" upon it.
His letter cited electoral wins ranging from Mayor Kenney's election to "three new justices" on the state Supreme Court, one of whom was his brother Kevin.
Dougherty's letter also nods toward an ongoing state grand jury investigation launched in February to look into Local 98, according to people familiar with that inquiry. That probe has been looking in part into two episodes in which Dougherty was involved in brawls with nonunion workers - clashes that have also drawn the interest of the FBI.
FBI agents served the warrant on Ralston early Tuesday morning at his Attorney General's Office workplace, on Essington Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia. Ralston has worked for the agency for more than a decade, though the agency said privacy rules bar it from disclosing his hire date.
In the search warrant, federal authorities said they wanted to know about queries Ralston made on state computers and databases accessible to the law-enforcement agents in the Attorney General's Office. They also sought information Ralston kept on the office's computer servers in Harrisburg.
They also asked about his communication with several people, notably including Henon. Ralston and Henon grew up around the corner from each other in the city's Wissinoming section.
The warrant also asked about Henon's communication with his younger brother, William, who is also an agent in the Attorney General's Office, in the organized-crime section. He could not be reached for comment.
The FBI seemed interested in any moonlighting by Joseph Ralston.
The office's internal policies require agents to receive approval before accepting any outside employment. Jeff Johnson, the office's spokesman, on Wednesday would not say whether Ralston had sought such permission.
The warrant also sought information on any dealings between Ralston and Lou Palumbo and Palumbo's business, Elite Intelligence & Protection.
Palumbo is a retired Nassau County, N.Y., police officer and a pundit on security matters for CNN.
On Wednesday, Palumbo said his company had not done work for Dougherty or Local 98. Ralston, however, had done contract work for the firm, Palumbo said, providing security in Philadelphia for celebrities and business executives.
"For my purposes, he's a stand-up guy and a good worker," Palumbo said. 'He's been very aboveboard."
Last year, Palumbo said, Ralston set up and attended at least two meetings for him in Philadelphia in the hope of drumming up security work for Elite, including sessions with Council and Local 98 officials.
"We went down there fishing around for any leads that might turn business," Palumbo said.