- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 31, 2019

When officials at the free-market Commonwealth Foundation opposed Philadelphia’s first-in-the-nation soda tax, they argued it was bad economics, would hurt the poor and wouldn’t curb childhood obesity.

“People would just cross city lines to buy soda in the suburbs,” said Nathan Benefield, the group’s vice president.

But he now concedes that opponents of the soda tax were up against “the incredible network of influence” that labor leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty enjoyed in the nation’s sixth-largest city, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 6-to-1.

According to a federal indictment unsealed Wednesday, corrupt Democratic city officials and electricians’ union leaders pushed through the soda tax in 2016 in a revenge feud against the Teamsters union, instead of a motivation to affect public health.

The Justice Department’s indictment reveals how Philadelphia Councilman Robert Henon, who was on the payroll of Mr. Dougherty’s union, introduced the soda-tax proposal as payback against the Teamsters for criticizing Mr. Dougherty in a political advertisement a year earlier.

The Teamsters opposed the soda tax because they believed it would cost them jobs by reducing demand for soft drinks.

When aides to Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney tried to explain to Mr. Dougherty the public health benefits of the soda tax, the indictment alleges, the union leader replied, “You don’t have to explain to me. I don’t give a f—-.” He predicted it would “cost the Teamsters 100 jobs in Philly.”

Asked this week whether the soda tax resulted from a vendetta between labor unions, the mayor replied, “It may have been a revenge plot by Local 98, but it wasn’t to do with me.”

The indictment of the powerful labor leader has uncovered how one union, in cahoots with one allegedly corrupt elected Democratic councilman, can affect the cost of everything from a can of soda to cable TV service. In one case, prosecutors detailed how Mr. Dougherty’s Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers got City Hall to stop the renowned Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia from installing an MRI machine using cheaper, non-union labor.

Mr. Benefield said the indictment illustrates how a battle over public policy can be lost for all the wrong reasons.

“You can make all the good policy arguments, but there’s so much corruption and bribery that goes into creating bad policy, that’s what’s wrong with the politics of Philadelphia,” he said in an interview. “It’s often driven not by ideology or by economics, but by backroom politics.”

As head of the 4,700-member electricians’ union, Mr. Dougherty has broad reach into city, state and federal politics. With a war chest funded by union members’ dues, his Local 98 has contributed heavily to the campaigns of city council, district attorney, mayor, state legislators, elected state judges (his brother Kevin is a state Supreme Court justice), and congressmen. Among his allies in Washington is Rep. Dwight Evans, Pennsylvania Democrat, and recently retired Rep. Robert A. Brady of Philadelphia also has been an ally.

Perhaps Mr. Dougherty’s biggest coup was driving a Democratic takeover of the state Supreme Court in 2015, funding the campaigns of three winning candidates, including his brother. Last year, the Democratic majority on the high court approved a new redistricting map that is more favorable to Democrats, who picked up three House seats in the midterm elections.

Mr. Dougherty could be vindictive, according to the indictment. When his car got towed, costing him $200, Mr. Dougherty allegedly got Mr. Henon to hold council hearings on the towing company’s business practices.

“Just tell them you have heard nothing but complaints,” Mr. Dougherty allegedly told the councilman. “Just smoke ‘em.”

The Philadelphia Parking Authority, featured in the popular cable show “Parking Wars,” was operating under the alleged protection of Mr. Henon and Mr. Dougherty. As an example, prosecutors cite a June 2016 episode in which a member of the city council proposed a resolution calling for a performance audit of the PPA to determine whether the agency could contribute more money to the Philadelphia School District.

A top PPA official called Mr. Henon to object to the audit. The indictment says the councilman agreed to kill the proposal in return for getting windows installed in the home of a friend by another PPA official who was a member of a union that installed glass.

Mr. Henon assured the PPA official about the audit, “we will beat it down.” City council officials ultimately rejected the proposal.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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