5 Takeaways From the Alleged Johnny Doc Brawl

Meet the new Doc. Same as the old Doc?

Photo by Jeff Fusco

Photo by Jeff Fusco

The Philadelphia Inquirer broke a bombshell of a story today: John Dougherty, the politically influential labor leader, was in a physical altercation with a nonunion electrician on January 21st at a worksite — but spokesman Frank Keel says Dougherty acted purely in self-defense.

According to Keel, contractor Joshua Keesee threatened Dougherty’s family members, and then Keesee “rushed John and threw a punch” at his head. “John Dougherty ducked the contractor’s punch and countered with a punch to the assailant’s face. That was the end of the incident,” says Keel. “We firmly believe that there should be no criminal or civil charges filed in this matter.” Keesee, though, has another story: He claims that Dougherty took the first hit, and broke his nose in the process.

City police are investigating, according to the Inquirer. District Attorney Seth Williams referred the matter to Attorney General Kathleen Kane, whose office said Tuesday that she “set up a conflict wall regarding the decision to accept or deny the referral and/or initiate charges.” That’s because Dougherty’s electricians union was a donor to her 2013 campaign. There’s a lot to chew on here, lots of potential impacts. Here are five takeaways from the incident:

  1. This allegation could threaten Dougherty’s efforts to prove that he is a changed man. In the last couple years, Dougherty has passionately argued that he is a different man than he was in the past, back when rumors swirled around the city about his electricians union’s alleged strong-armed tactics. As Robert Huber wrote in a Philly Mag profile of Doc in 2014, “The troubling way John Dougherty operated, how that rubbed people wrong — that’s old news. He tells me that himself one day, because he’s very determined that we understand the new Johnny Doc. ‘I have changed the foundation of how I do things,’ he says. ‘Everybody knows the stories.’ The old stories. And then, almost confessionally: ‘I can’t change who I am. I did things I didn’t want to tell anyone about.'” What Keesee is alleging (and, to be clear, that’s all it is at this point — an allegation) sounds a lot like one of those old stories we’d hear about Dougherty. That cannot be good for the New Doc narrative.
  2. This is a significantly different kind of article than we’ve been reading about Dougherty recently. Dougherty has seemed unstoppable of late, and many stories written about him (including by Citified) have been a variation on that theme. In the last year, Dougherty helped get his brother elected to the state Supreme Court. Ditto for Mayor Jim Kenney. He became the leader of the Philadelphia Building Trades Council. His chief ally on City Council, Bobby Henon, rose to the position of Majority Leader. His longtime foe, carpenters union leader Ed Coryell, fell from power. But now, the police are investigating an incident allegedly involving Dougherty.
  3. The Inquirer article looks to be very carefully reported. The bylines on the piece are powerhouse journalists Craig McCoy, Mark Fazlollah and Dylan Purcell. Chris Brennan also contributed to the report. Why is that relevant? You can bet that if there is a follow-up story here, it will get written.
  4. In referring the case to the Attorney General, District Attorney Seth Williams arguably did something similar to what his predecessor, Lynne Abraham, used to do. A spokesman for Williams said Tuesday that he made the right call: “He has a long-standing professional relationship with Mr. Dougherty that required him to refer the matter to another agency,” said Cameron Kline. “PA law allows the referral of a matter where there is a potential for an actual or apparent conflict of interest on the part of the district attorney or his office.” Perhaps. But Williams has criticized Abraham for making similar decisions in the past. While District Attorney, Abraham regularly referred cases with potential political conflicts to state and federal prosecutors. As recently as 2014, Williams seemed to be referring to Abraham when he said his office would “no longer abdicate our responsibility to investigate” political corruption cases.
  5. Doc has been investigated by law enforcement officials before, only to have no charges filed. This was not in the Inquirer article about the recent physical altercation, but it’s something to keep in mind. Dougherty was investigated by the FBI in 2006. According to documents unsealed by a judge in 2014, an FBI special agent said she had probable cause to believe that Dougherty had violated the law by allegedly receiving free renovations, buying a condominium at below-market price, and filing false tax returns. He was never charged.