Dougherty's long-running feud at 3rd & Reed

In January , an altercation at Third and Reed Streets between John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty and a nonunion worker turned violent. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ/ Staff Photographer
In January , an altercation at Third and Reed Streets between John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty and a nonunion worker turned violent. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ/ Staff Photographer
Posted: March 14, 2016

Labor leader John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty says the nonunion workers pelted him with bricks, opening up a cut on his head.

The nonunion bricklayers said Dougherty was the one throwing bricks, and that Dougherty hurt himself when he stumbled while advancing toward them.

Responding police blamed both sides. "The situation escalated where objects where thrown at one another," an officer said.

What seems beyond dispute is that an ugly confrontation took place that May weekend in 2014 at a big townhouse project in South Philadelphia, pitting Dougherty and some of his union members against nonunion workers.

And the clash unfolded at the very same disputed ground where nearly two years later, in January, Dougherty and three other union members would get into a fight with a different nonunion tradesman, an electrical contractor.

As the Inquirer reported last month, Dougherty and the man he hit in the face during the Jan. 21 brawl both say the other threw the first punch.

Accounts of what transpired on that day are in dispute.

Dougherty says the violence began when a nonunion worker suckerpunched one of his union colleagues as he was trying to scrape a union sticker off the worker's truck.

The nonunion contractor, Joshua Keesee, blames Dougherty, saying the two men were exchanging insults when the labor leader suddenly hit him with a left-right combo, breaking his nose. Another witness, James Yates, who lives on the block, said Dougherty and his men charged at Keesee.

In an extensive interview last week, Dougherty, 55, long one of the region's most powerful Democratic leaders, spoke for the first time with the Inquirer about the two incidents.

He said they occurred on a disputed piece of turf in which nonunion crews had repeatedly flouted city construction rules and resorted to curses, fists, and brick-throwing when questioned.

He insists he was blameless for any violence and says he was provoked - that he threw punches only after Keesee threatened his family and then ran at him.

"Maybe I made the wrong decision," Dougherty said. "I had an option to leave it. . . . He ran at me. What was I supposed to do?"

The two episodes strike a discordant note with the image Dougherty has sought to cultivate in recent years as he has repositioned himself as a kind of labor statesman.

The 2014 confrontation took place two days before a milestone in that transformation - the day Dougherty led his electricians across pickets lines set up by the Carpenters' union and Teamsters at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

The battleground is at Third and Reed Streets in South Philadelphia, in Dougherty's neighborhood of Pennsport. The use of nonunion labor to build a dozen townhouses there has been a major irritant to Dougherty's International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers' Local 98.

The fight has taken many twists. As Dougherty put it in the interview, the discord there "is something that I have not been accustomed to."

At issue are four-story townhouses with roof decks and garages, selling for more than $600,000. The developer is Barry Sable, a well-known Philadelphia jeweler who pleaded guilty 20 years ago to tax evasion and served a brief sentence.

The feud began in spring 2014 after the union sent Sable a letter demanding that he tell them whether he was paying union wages. Sable ignored it.

In the months that followed, Local 98 picketed the worksite and installed its 12-foot-high inflatable rat there. And Local 98 created a website - BarrySable.com - that rehashed Sable's tax arrest and prominently displayed the number for "Barry's cell."

"Shame on Barry Sable," the website says.

In an interview, Sable, 65, said he explored using union electricians, but found that too expensive. For his rejection, Sable said, he has been subjected to 18 months of "torment" by Dougherty's union.

"This is how they do business, with harsh and harmful bullying tactics," he said.

The dispute first turned violent on May 10, 2014.

After a visit to his chiropractor that Saturday afternoon, Dougherty pulled up alone in his car at the site, after noticing that bricklayers had blocked traffic by stringing a hose across the street.

He took out a camera to photograph the obstruction. One of the workers pulled out a camera, too - to take pictures of Dougherty.

That's just about the only point of agreement between Dougherty and witnesses interviewed from the nonunion crews.

By Dougherty's account, nonunion workers immediately challenged him, with one screaming "like a madman," another spitting at him, and a third brandishing a knife.

He said he quickly called his chiropractor, James Moylan, whose office was nearby. Moylan raced to the scene.

Moylan, 53, has been a paid political consultant to Local 98. The newly appointed chairman of the city Zoning Board, he was president of the Pennsport Civic Association until recently.

Moylan said he saw as many as five men near Dougherty, with three "coming at him," and two others standing nearby with pipes.

Two men began throwing bricks, Dougherty said. One brick "skimmed the side of my head," he said. He displayed a photo showing a fresh cut near his left ear.

Said Moylan: "I didn't see the bricks being thrown, but what I did see was John standing there, being the only person there, a brick on the ground and blood on his head."

But by the accounts of the two bricklayers there that day - Brandon Bradbury and James Lassiter, who both have extensive criminal records - it was Dougherty and his allies who were throwing bricks at them.

They described Dougherty as out of control, cursing, and angry after Bradbury began photographing him.

As for Dougherty's injury, Bradbury said the union leader apparently hurt himself when he stumbled while advancing toward Bradbury.

"He threw a brick directly at me, and then he fell," Bradbury said.

According to the bricklayers and another witness, Dougherty was backed up by men who arrived quickly once the confrontation began. (Dougherty said as many as 30 bystanders might have crowded onto the scene, but only a few were from Local 98.)

Lassiter, one of the bricklayers, said: "They were forming a line, with Dougherty leading it. They were throwing bricks. . . . They knocked all the gates down.

"That jawn escalated. That escalated real fast," he added. "I was still working. I didn't know there was going to be a drama like this."

Bradbury said he tried to defuse the clash because he and his workers already had criminal records. "My guys were all ex-con roughnecks," he said.

Lassiter, 40, was arrested in 2012 after police said he threw bricks at another man and swung a broom at him, cutting his lip. Prosecutors dropped that case, but Lassiter was convicted twice in the 1990s for illegal possession of handguns.

Bradbury, 49, pleaded guilty six years ago to molesting an 11-year-old girl. In 1995, he was convicted of a kidnapping-conspiracy charge in a case involving more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana.

While Dougherty and the nonunion bricklayers all insist that the others were the ones throwing bricks, another observer said both sides were tossing them, although he said most seemed to be aimed at the bricklayers.

The witness, a 32-year-old stucco contractor, asked not to be named, saying he feared retaliation for speaking out. He said he watched the clash from the third floor of a townhouse at the site, upset as bricks struck his truck. He said Dougherty's men tore down the worksite's fence and threw it against his truck, scratching the paint.

"They were throwing bricks at each other . . .," he said. "There were so many bricks. I just got my guys out of there.

"That was the craziest day of my life. I've seen knife fights, but I've never seen brick fights."

At one point, the stucco contractor said, Bradbury escaped the melee, ran to a nearby house, and yelled for a neighbor to call police.

Arriving police quieted the scene down. There were no arrests.

In the initial brief police report, responding officers said both sides were throwing objects. The report also said: "Neither party wished to pursue legal charges."

Dougherty said that was not so.

After the incident, Dougherty said, he, Moylan, and union lawyer David Conroy went to the South Philadelphia Detective Division and gave a statement to detectives. In the 22 months since, he said, he has heard nothing back.

"They just let it die on the vine," Conroy said.

A police spokeswoman said Friday that there was an "active and open investigation" of the incident and declined further comment.

As for the more recent dispute - the fistfight on Jan. 21 - the state Attorney General's Office is investigating. The FBI also has taken an interest in the case.

The confrontation erupted when Dougherty passed by the site on his way to work. He saw Keesee's truck there and noticed that it still had a union sticker on its rear window.

"It's basically saying he's a Local 98 contractor. He's not," Dougherty said. "It's a misrepresentation."Keesee says he had bought the truck from a union contractor five months earlier and had not gotten around to removing the sticker. He said he was not attempting to deceive anyone.

Dougherty pulled over to talk to Keesee.

With Dougherty were two younger employees of the union, electricians Tom Rodriguez and Niko Rodriguez. (The two are not related.)

Already at the scene was a senior union official, Chris Owens, who is paid $143,000 annually by Local 98 and who was a regular at the Third and Reed location.

By Dougherty's account, he tried to talk calmly with the contractor.

"I'm only here to take that sticker off," Dougherty said he told Keesee. "Would you take that sticker off for me?"

Dougherty and Keesee agree that the contractor gave permission for the decal to be removed. After that, their stories diverge.

According to Keesee, 36, the encounter was heated from the start. While Tom Rodriguez was removing the sticker, Keesee said, he and Dougherty exchanged insults. Suddenly, he said, the labor leader hit him with a left-right combo, breaking his nose.

But Dougherty said Keesee was the aggressor, punching Tom Rodriguez without warning.

Part of the confrontation was captured by a security camera. Dougherty says the video supports his account that Keesee struck first. He notes that it shows Tom Rodriguez bleeding from Keesee's blow well before it captures Dougherty and his union employees in a subsequent scuffle with Keesee.

Keesee disputes that the video supports Dougherty's account of the incident. He says Dougherty's first punch fell before the men came into view of the video camera. He has threatened to file a lawsuit.

Keesee's lawyer, Robert Mozenter, said detectives investigated the matter and recommended that Dougherty be arrested on aggravated-assault charges. Police officials declined to comment on that.

Late last month, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams referred the investigation to state prosecutors, saying his "professional relationship" with Dougherty barred him from handling the matter. This was a reference to Local 98's donations to his campaign fund.

Erik Olsen, the chief deputy attorney general leading the state investigation, declined to comment last week.

Keesee said he remains troubled that Dougherty confronted him in the first place.

"Why was he there?" he asked. "I have a right to be there. It's my worksite."

Dougherty said he had not expected any violence. He pointed out that he had left home facing a jammed schedule with appointments that included a pension fund meeting and a session with the president of Drexel University.

"I was not expecting confrontation," he said. "I thought I might have some conversation."

cmccoy@phillynews.com

215-854-4821@CraigRMcCoy

Staff writer William Bender contributed to this article.

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