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Johnny Doc’s lawyers ask to quit his case as two trials loom

Philadelphia Inquirer logo Philadelphia Inquirer 8/18/2022 Jeremy Roebuck, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Ballard Spahr attorney Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. (front) leaves the James A. Byrne U.S. Courthouse in Center City and his client, labor leader John Dougherty (background), holds the door. © TOM GRALISH/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Ballard Spahr attorney Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. (front) leaves the James A. Byrne U.S. Courthouse in Center City and his client, labor leader John Dougherty (background), holds the door.

John J. Dougherty has confidently predicted he’ll be acquitted at his federal trials on embezzlement and extortion charges. But trouble’s been brewing between the former labor leader and the legal team that’s represented him for years.

He has refused to speak to his lead attorney, Henry E. Hockeimer Jr., for nearly a month — including on one occasion in July while they were in the same room, according to court filings.

And on Wednesday, Hockeimer and four other lawyers at the Philadelphia-based law firm Ballard Spahr, which has represented Dougherty since 2016, asked the court’s permission to drop him as a client.

“Ballard Spahr counsel have represented Mr. Dougherty for many years and do not file this motion lightly,” they wrote.

In the filing, Hockeimer cited “significantly diverging opinions” on how to move forward with the two pending sets of criminal charges.

The first, involving allegations that Dougherty threatened a union contractor who tried to fire his nephew, was set to go to trial last month but has been indefinitely delayed.

The second centers on charges that Dougherty and five others embezzled more than $650,000 from Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the union he led for nearly three decades. He stepped down from his position last year after his conviction in a public corruption case involving former City Councilmember Bobby Henon.

Labor leader John Dougherty still has more legal problems

Hockeimer did not specify the exact nature of the conflict between him and his client in his filing Wednesday, and both he and Dougherty declined to comment when reached by phone Wednesday.

But three sources familiar with the matter described the falling-out as one over payment of legal fees and a difference of opinion on whether to accept a plea deal offered by prosecutors earlier this year.

That offer would have resolved the charges in both remaining cases — as well as in Dougherty’s bribery case — with a sentencing recommendation from the government that the sources described as “generous.”

Hockeimer and his Ballard colleagues urged Dougherty to take it and plead guilty to some of the remaining charges, the sources said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential talks between the attorneys and their client.

John Dougherty exits the James A. Byrne U.S. Courthouse in Center City in October 2021. © MONICA HERNDON/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS John Dougherty exits the James A. Byrne U.S. Courthouse in Center City in October 2021.

Dougherty wanted to keep fighting in court.

He’s pinning his hopes on an issue raised by his lawyers earlier this year — the government’s disclosure that it had developed an informant in Dougherty’s inner circle that recorded more than 30 conversations with him in the run-up to and during his first trial in November.

Hockeimer has questioned the government’s delay in disclosing the existence of the mole and raised concerns that the informant’s recordings may have exposed Dougherty’s trial strategy to prosecutors. That would be a potential violation of Dougherty’s rights, Hockeimer has argued, and should call last year’s corruption conviction into doubt as well as the viability of the remaining two cases against him.

An FBI informant recorded Johnny Doc threatening ‘rats.’ His lawyers say that violated his rights.

Prosecutors maintain they did nothing improper and have closely guarded the informant’s identity from both the public and Dougherty. They took the unusual step of encouraging the informant to continue recording Dougherty in the run-up to his trial, they say, out of concern that the labor leader was threatening witnesses in the case.

The informant was counseled in advance to avoid recording any conversations that might involve talk of Dougherty’s trial strategy, Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank R. Costello said at a hearing in June. And as an extra precaution, each of the recordings was prescreened by government lawyers and agents who were not part of the team investigating Dougherty to ensure that no confidential attorney-client information made its way to the prosecution team.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey L. Schmehl, who is presiding over Dougherty’s criminal cases, has not indicated whether he views the matter as one that should call the labor leader’s conviction and future trials into question.

However, in a ruling last month, the judge ordered the government to hand over a host of documents detailing the informant’s work to Dougherty’s defense.

Hockeimer had not had a chance to fully incorporate those documents into a defense request to toss the the remaining charges against Dougherty before the two had their falling-out over the government’s plea offer.

According to the motion he filed Wednesday, he and Dougherty have not had “substantive communications” since July 29.

Schmehl, at one point, even sought to intervene, the filing says, calling Dougherty and his attorneys into his chambers last week and encouraging them to talk.

“Mr. Dougherty refused to speak with counsel,” Hockeimer wrote.

Hockeimer said that Dougherty has been receiving legal advice from another attorney since at least the end of last month but did not name that lawyer in his motion.

That attorney, Hockeimer wrote, has made clear he’s only offering legal counsel and does not intend to represent Dougherty at his remaining two trials.

The court had set a Wednesday morning deadline for Dougherty to decide whether he could work things out with Ballard and, if not, who would represent him going forward. But in an email quoted in Hockeimer’s filing, the other attorney counseling the labor leader wrote that as of Tuesday evening Dougherty “was still considering” his options.

It remains to be seen whether Schmehl will allow the Ballard lawyers to withdraw. He is expected to schedule a hearing in the coming days to consider the matter and Dougherty could oppose his attorneys’ requests to drop him.

Dougherty’s next trial — the embezzlement case — is scheduled to begin Oct. 13.

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