This holiday season, Philadelphia Democrats are asking insiders to empty their pockets to help one of their own in a time of need.
The recipient: City Councilmember Bobby Henon. His plight: a mountain of legal bills from his nearly two-year-old federal corruption case.
Construction industry leaders and other political players are circulating petitions to raise money for the three-term lawmaker, who heads to trial in January for an alleged bribery scheme, alongside members of the IBEW Local 98 electricians union.
John Parsons, a partner at Bensalem-based construction firm BSI, sent around a pitch calling for donations that cites Henon’s work in the real estate sector.
“Bobby has supported city-wide efforts to make [the] property tax reassessment system fair and equitable and provide property tax relief for all Philadelphians,” Parsons wrote prospective donors in an email reviewed by Billy Penn.
While under investigation following the 2016 FBI raid on his office, taxpayers ponied up the cost of Henon’s attorneys. That perk doesn’t apply after indictment, and it’s not cheap to fight off a years-long legal battle.
“Bobby’s not wealthy,” said Adam Bonin, a Democratic election law attorney overseeing the fund. “He’s a working-class guy, and when you’ve got the full barrel of the federal government against you, these fights unfortunately cost money.”
Henon took a $9,000 pay cut on City Council after losing his majority leader post in January, which took his salary down to the base $131,000 for regular councilmembers. He also draws income — last reported at $70,000 annually — from the union job side gig that now sits in the crosshairs of federal prosecutors. He also makes money off a rental property down the shore, according to his most recent financial disclosure record.
Rittenhouse Political Partners, a prominent Democratic fundraising group in Philadelphia, is administrating the newly formed Henon Defense Legal Fund.
“The trust is designed to be fully compliant with all applicable rules, and all contributions to the trust will be reported as required by law,” said lawyer Bonin. “Bobby is grateful to have the support of so many of his longtime friends, and looks forward to fighting these charges.”
Anyone can contribute to the Henon Defense Legal Fund, with some exceptions.
Per city and state law, it can’t accept money from any individual or business seeking official action from Henon in his role as a councilmember, or anyone who has a financial interest that Henon could influence via legislation.
It’s not clear whether donors are allowed to include someone who could potentially seek a future political favor from Henon. Bonin said contributions will be reviewed on a case by case basis. The attorney would not say how much money the fund had already raised, nor name any donors.
Unlike contributions to a political campaign, there are no monetary limits on giving to a legal defense fund for an indicted official.
David Thornburgh, who heads the nonpartisan watchdog group Committee of Seventy, said he was concerned that unrestricted contributions could create a larger sense of debt for a politician. Campaign contribution limits in Philadelphia exist in part to level the playing field of influence.
“There’s a difference if you donate $5,000, versus $50,000,” Thornburgh said.
Under rules governing gifts to public officials, donors’ names will appear in a public record under Henon’s annual statement of financial interests.
What’s the court case racking up the legal fees? Federal prosecutors allege Henon acted as a puppet for Local 98 leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, doing the union’s bidding on Council in exchange for a series of bribes, including campaign contributions and the paid union staff position he’s maintained since he was elected in 2011.
In one example, Henon allegedly weaponized the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections against non-union labor, sending them after a company hired to install an MRI machine at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, per prosecutors.
Dougherty and Henon have denied all allegations, arguing the actions in question amount to little more than “normal and lawful lobbying of a City Council member.”
Prosecutors also allege Dougherty and other Local 98 officials drained more than $600,000 from the union over six years, using the embezzled funds to fix up their homes and pay for personal items.
Last month, a federal judge ruled the case against Dougherty, Henon and other union officials would be split into two trials — one for the embezzlement charges, one for the alleged political bribery.