March 16 2014

Philadelphia Unions' Political Spending Under Scrutiny

National Review Online

Jillian Kay Melchior

After ten members of Philadelphia’s Ironworkers Local 401 were charged with multiple counts under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, federal officials emphasized the investigation was ongoing. And the indictment hinted that unions’ political activities may soon be examined. With that in mind, National Review Online wanted to follow the union money.

Today, I report on how a substantial amount of cash from a political action committee run by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 ended up at a seedy South Philly dive bar owned by the union’s top leadership:

Doc’s Union Pub is the direct or indirect recipient of huge amounts of money from Local 98’s political-action committee, one of the most significant campaign spenders in the state. Mike Connell Catering (also known as Mike the Cook Catering), a company that appears to operate primarily out of Doc’s Union Pub, also cashes in on its union connections.

The flow of money from the union’s PAC to labor leaders’ businesses isn’t necessarily illegal, even though it resembles a self-pay scheme. Nevertheless, public records distinctly show union leadership becoming wealthy even as the average worker struggled through a bad economy; between 2008 and 2012, around a third of Philadelphia’s unionized construction workers were unemployed or underemployed. . . .

Between 2012 and 2013, Doc’s Union Pub received at least $85,250 from seven direct disbursements from Local 98’s PAC, according to data from the Federal Election Commission. Likewise, between 2004 and 2013, Mike Connell Catering received 34 separate disbursements from the PAC, adding up to $217,100.

State-level candidates supported by Local 98 also patronized Doc’s Union Pub and Mike Connell Catering, spending big. Between 2001 and 2012, 14 Pennsylvania candidates and committees received Local 98 money — and together, they spent $405,000 at Doc’s Union Pub. Between 2005 and 2013, Mike’s Catering Company also received $50,750 from eight Pennsylvania candidates who had received financial support from the electrical workers’ union.

The story focuses on the union money directed to the property or purse of John Dougherty — known in Philly as “Johnny Doc” — a Local 98 business agent and political power broker. His family and friends also appear to be profiting significantly from their ties with the union.

I’m not the only one digging into the finances of Philadelphia’s construction unions, which for decades have dominated the city’s building sector through a mix of violence, vandalism, and intimidation. Today at Watchdog.org and the PA Independent, Eric Boem writes about the role of Ironworkers Local 401 campaign cash in a few upcoming races:

The Democratic candidate in a race that could determine control of the Pennsylvania Senate says he will keep a $7,500 donation from the embattled Ironworkers Local 401 union.

John Kane, a resident of Ridley Township in Delaware County and the business manager of the Local Plumbers 690, got the campaign cash and an endorsement from the Ironworkers union last year. . . .

State Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Philadelphia, who is running for Congress in the seat being vacated by Schwartz, got $14,500 from the union since the start of 2012. He told the Philadelphia Daily News he plans to keep the donations, even though he does not condone the actions detailed in the indictment.

The $7,500 given to Kane stands out as one of the larger single donations made by the Ironworkers’ union over the past few years. But the union is no stranger in state political circles. . . .

According to campaign finance reports, the union has spent more than $1.25 million on campaigns since 2004. Though much of the money flows directly to candidates’ accounts, the Ironworkers 401 also support Democratic campaign committees in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties and state-level political action committees.

Read my report here, and also check out Eric Boem’s story.

— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow for the Independent Women’s Forum. 

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