Why the Johnny Doc Investigation Could Slow Kenney’s Momentum

The mayor’s relationship with the powerful union leader, who is now under federal investigation, may have Philadelphians assuming the worst.

L to R: Jim Kenney and John Dougherty | Photos by Jeff Fusco

L to R: Jim Kenney and John Dougherty. | Photos by Jeff Fusco

It’s just one short line credited to an anonymous source, but it’s got to be a nightmare for Mayor Jim Kenney.

In a story last week about the FBI’s raids of properties connected to IBEW Local 98 leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, the Inquirer wrote, “A person familiar with the investigation said it focused on the union’s finances and its involvement in the political campaigns of Mayor Kenney and state Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty, who is Dougherty’s brother.”

Of course, the FBI is characteristically quiet about what it’s actually up to, leaving Philadelphians to guess at the scope and gravity of the latest in a long string of investigations into local politicos. This recent inquiry brought the feds not only to Dougherty’s house and Local 98’s headquarters, but also to the City Hall office of Councilman Bobby Henon, the union’s former political director.

A spokeswoman for Kenney said no one in the administration had been approached or questioned by the FBI, and that she has no reason to believe that the mayor is a target of the investigation. There’s no way to know how all this will shake out for Kenney in the long run, as BillyPenn notes.

But Kenney’s got to be frustrated. He had to overcome some major ambivalence about Doc — the two have known each other since childhood, but disliked each other for much of the past few decades — in order to get into the mayor’s office. Dougherty’s union donated heavily to Kenney’s campaign fund and to a PAC supporting the mayor. And now, just seven months into Kenney’s tenure, his chief political benefactor, someone who is already the subject of constant scrutiny by the press, is the target of a federal investigation.

In a way, Kenney is lucky that the raids came when they did. For one, he’s already secured his first big, potentially term-defining success by getting a majority of City Council members to approve a tax on sugary drinks, with most of the proceeds going to fund popular initiatives like expanded pre-K and improvements to parks and rec centers. For another, he doesn’t have to run for office again for three more years, which could be enough time for the whole investigation to play out and for him to disassociate himself from it. (Assuming that, you know, he’s not a target.) Imagine, conversely, the political shitstorm that would erupt if the FBI raids had come during another Doc-funded campaign.

But Kenney probably doesn’t feel that lucky right now. His predecessor, Michael Nutter, made it through eight years in the mayor’s office without being mentioned in connection with a notable federal investigation. Kenney didn’t make it through eight months.

Again, there’s no evidence that either Kenney’s office or his political operation are the target of the FBI’s investigation, and the only indication of what the whole thing is about comes from an anonymous assertion in a newspaper article. But the mayor’s political enemies — and they’ll start to come out of the woodwork as election season comes around again — won’t need actual evidence in order to arouse the electorate’s suspicion. The city has a storied tradition of political corruption, and Philadelphians don’t need a whole lot of urging in order to assume the worst about their elected officials. (Some need no urging at all, as you can tell by visiting the comments section on any local news website.)

Kenney’s got time to untangle himself from Dougherty. But would he have the will? In some ways, it’s a lose-lose scenario for the mayor. If Kenney distances himself and Doc emerges from the investigation unscathed, the Local 98 treasure chest could be reserved for a more loyal politician. If they stick together and Doc goes down, it’s hard to see how Kenney would survive politically.

Henon isn’t sitting pretty, either. Currently, the political alliances on Council are somewhat in flux. If other Council members smell blood, they could try to take Henon out of his majority leader post, which he’s only had as long as Kenney’s been mayor.

Or, maybe nothing will happen. Nobody knows what potential wrongdoing the FBI is actually looking into, and the feds aren’t going to say unless they file charges. Maybe they’ll decide that after their big, dramatic raids in the middle of a business day, they don’t have enough evidence to indict anyone.

But that — leaving Philadelphians with no facts and a whole lot of suspicion — isn’t a great outcome for Kenney, either.

Follow @JaredBrey on Twitter.