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High-Voltage Interest…

April 7, 2006

By Dave Davies & Michael Hinkelman, Philadelphia Daily News

Apr. 7–WHEN FEDERAL agents descended on the huge McMansion shoehorned into a rowhouse street in Pennsport one January day, it might have been just a neighborhood curiosity.

But the ostentatious spread is owned by Donald “Gus” Dougherty, an electrical contractor with powerful Democratic connections, in particular with party treasurer and electricians’ union leader John Dougherty.

Donald Dougherty is known as a man of driving ambition and enormous appetites – for money, houses, cars, boats and, friends say, booze, a problem he’s working to overcome.

But his problems with the feds – no charges have been filed against anyone yet – are now a matter of intense interest and speculation among the city’s political elite, with rival factions seeing the probe differently.

Some, who dub Donald Dougherty the “Electrician of the Stars” because of his work for the politically wired, believe that the feds are interested in services he may have provided to top Democrats.

Some of John Dougherty’s adversaries hope the probe means trouble for the controversial union leader, who has feuded lately with party chairman U.S. Rep. Bob Brady.

While the breadth of Donald Dougherty’s ties to top Democrats is in dispute, it’s clear they derive from his association with John Dougherty.

The two men are not related, but they grew up in the same South Philadelphia neighborhood and have been close for years. John Dougherty is godfather to Donald Dougherty’s only child.

“He is my dear friend,” John Dougherty said in an interview.

“Whatever happens to Donald, he’s going to be my friend, and I’m never going to run away from him.”

The day Donald Dougherty’s home was raided by the feds, John Dougherty dropped by.

“To be honest with you, I was more there to see his wife and baby than I was to see him,” Dougherty said.

Donald Dougherty was unavailable for comment, and federal authorities aren’t talking about the investigation.

John Dougherty acknowledged in an interview “there’s no doubt” that among federal investigators, “there’s interest into [Donald's] relationship with myself.”

He declined to discuss specifics of any contact he may have had from authorities, but said “there are a series of subpoenas around.”

A personal financial relationship between the Doughertys could be problematic under some circumstances. Federal labor law makes it illegal for a union leader to get money or things of value from an employer who hires the union’s members.

John Dougherty said he and Donald have no business relationship, but he did hire Dougherty Electric to do wiring on his house when it was renovated in 2004, and he bought a Jersey shore property from Donald.

Records show John Dougherty bought a North Wildwood condo from Donald Dougherty and Martha Capano in 2003 for $206,000.

John Dougherty said he’s certain he has nothing to fear from the probe and, he says, “I’ve told Donald to cooperate 100 percent.”

A star contractor is born

Donald Dougherty may have gotten attention for his political connections and trouble with the feds, but he’s always had a way of standing out from the crowd.

“He was always an aggressive young kid,” said John Dougherty, who knew Donald in the neighborhood as a schoolmate of his younger sister. “He was always the kid who wanted to play with the big kids. He would always try to force his way into the ballgames and things like that.”

As he got older, John Dougherty remembered Donald selling T-shirts or buying lottery tickets to sell in New York when the Pennsylvania jackpot got really big.

“He always had an entrepreneurial side when he was a kid, always selling something,” John Dougherty said.

Donald eventually followed John Dougherty into the electrician’s trade. While John Dougherty rose in the union, Donald Dougherty formed Dougherty Electric in 1994.

Within a few years, the company’s trademark white vans seemed to be everywhere.

“It seemed he came from nowhere to being one of the largest electrical contractors,” said Joe Vignola, a South Philadelphian who served as city controller and later as director of the state board overseeing city finances.

The growth of Dougherty Electric roughly coincides with the rise of John Dougherty as a political force, and detractors believe he somehow used his clout to steer work to the firm.

John Dougherty said it’s really simpler than that. Donald’s firm grew in the 1990s when construction in the city was booming, and there was room for many to grow.

And, John Dougherty said, Donald “did a nice job of cultivating one or two people who were growing at the same time.” Specifically, he mentioned Ron Caplan, whose firm Philadelphia Management was taking on bigger projects in Center City.

Caplan did not return calls for comment.

Dougherty Electric has done some publicly funded and politically connected projects, including the Republican National Convention, the demolition of Veterans Stadium, and two charter schools.

John Dougherty doesn’t discount the notion that his association helped.

“Listen, his name’s Dougherty,” John Dougherty said. “He runs Dougherty Electric, and my name’s John Dougherty, OK? So knowing him, and the fact that he – prior to this – had been very supportive of me, as have a lot of people, he’s someone who became very dominant in the neighborhood.”

Dougherty Electric began working several large jobs at the same time, and Donald began to dabble in real-estate development, buying properties and renovating them for resale.

And because he knew John Dougherty, Donald Dougherty seems to have made some political connections.

Electrician of the stars?

Donald Dougherty never became a major political player, but he made a handful of political contributions, including donations to Mayor Street of $5,000 in 2001 and $10,000 in ’03.

Dougherty Electric did work for several prominent Democrats, including Brady, state Sen. Vince Fumo and City Councilman Jim Kenney.

Brady said he had Dougherty Electric install four televisions in his house last year, and had to pester the firm for months to get billed for the work.

Brady said his hiring of Dougherty Electric resulted from a ride home with Larry Delspechio, an official of John Dougherty’s union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98.

Brady said he needed someone to install TVs, he said, and Delspechio brought in Dougherty Electric.

Brady said he had become so frustrated at Dougherty Electric’s failure to bill him that he had an aide hand-deliver a letter asking for an invoice, just days before the company was raided by the feds.

He eventually got a bill for $12,000, Brady said, and paid it. He said he’s met Donald Dougherty twice.

Fumo said he doesn’t recall ever meeting Donald Dougherty, but spokesman Gary Tuma said Fumo discovered that Dougherty Electric had done a “small amount of work” on his Fairmount home in the 1990s and had been paid for it.

John Dougherty said that he’s certain that Fumo knows Donald Dougherty and that his firm had done a great deal of work when Fumo’s house was renovated in the late ’90s.

“It’s amazing,” John Dougherty said. “Donald Dougherty’s done work for a lot of people. Some have paid him, I would think, and some haven’t, I would think… I get a kick out of all these guys all of a sudden saying he’s a bad guy and they don’t know him.”

Kenney said he’s known Donald Dougherty for years, having grown up in the same neighborhood. He said Dougherty Electric had done “a few outlets” in his house about 15 years ago, and had been paid in full.

No information has surfaced suggesting that Dougherty Electric’s work for politicians is a focus of the federal probe.

When a rumor swept through political and media circles in February that the FBI had raided Brady’s Washington office, the FBI took the unusual step of saying no such thing had occurred.

Living high and crashing hard

Donald Dougherty was known for a hot temper and huge appetites. He was an enormous man before he had gastric-bypass surgery three years ago.

He drove a black Cadillac Escalade. He owned a shore house and a boat, and several years ago he bought and cleared several properties to build an enormous, three-story modern brick house on Pierce Street, around the corner from Dougherty Electric’s headquarters on Morris Street.

The house features a large pagoda-style deck, a two-car sunken garage, an in-ground pool and a recreation room with a granite bar and mahogany wainscoting.

But in 2002, the company was hit with a rash of lawsuits, mostly from creditors who’d furnished Dougherty Electric with supplies and said they had been stiffed.

“We kept calling Dougherty asking for the money, but we weren’t getting any respect,” said Vince Murphy, owner of Accu-Fire Fabrication Inc. in Morrisville. He said Dougherty had not paid him for $20,000 worth of pipe.

Like most of the suppliers, he eventually won a judgment in court and got his money. But there were other signs the company was under strain.

Joseph H. G. Proietta, president of the Community Academy of Philadelphia, a charter school in Juniata Park, said Dougherty Electric had been a problem on the $8.8 million rehab of an aging Kraft Foods building for the school’s new building in 2002 and ’03.

Proietta said Dougherty had been paid $487,000 for installing internal lights, site lighting and a fire-alarm system, but the alarm system had glitches that neither Dougherty nor the project’s general contractor could fix.

He said they had to hire another contractor for repairs when Dougherty wouldn’t release the codes to make the software fixes.

“We had a lot of trouble with them,” Proietta said. “They were not apparently sufficiently funded to get the job done.”

Other creditors who declined to be named said Dougherty seemed to have cash-flow problems, and those who dealt with Donald Dougherty said he could be hot-tempered.

“He tells you exactly what’s on his mind. He’s to-the-point, and a little brash,” said Richard Brown, a developer who charged in a suit that Dougherty had failed to perform work on a project and had threatened to use his political connections against Brown.

John Dougherty attributes many of Donald’s problems to alcohol and prescription medications he took after his gastric-bypass surgery. John Dougherty said he noticed a change in Donald’s personality after the operation.

“There seemed to be more of a compulsive personality,” John Dougherty said. “He was always aggressive but never compulsive.

“Now it seemed he could no longer build two houses; he wanted to build six houses,” John Dougherty said. “He didn’t want to have two drinks. He wanted to have six drinks. He no longer wanted to live two blocks from the beach. He wanted to live on the beach.”

Last year, Dougherty Electric moved out of its Morris Street headquarters and located the business office in Donald Dougherty’s house.

Now the house is for sale, and Dougherty is dealing with the fallout of the raid by the FBI and agents from the IRS and Labor Department. Dougherty Electric trucks can still be seen in the neighborhood, and “Dougherty Development” construction trailers are visible on Wharton Street and at the Morris Street site, which is being developed as apartments or condos.

Donald and John

Donald Dougherty’s attorney, Nicholas Nastasi Sr., said he was unable to discuss the feds’ interest in his client.

“With respect to my client’s personal life,” Nastasi said, “I can only tell you there are issues that are being dealt with, headed for a successful outcome.”

It’s clear that tax delinquencies are at least part of Donald Dougherty’s problem. And although the level of the feds’ interest in his relationship with John Dougherty is unclear, prosecutors have made inquiries that have at least some connection to both men.

Grand-jury subpoenas have been served on the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, which John Dougherty chairs, and the Pennsport Civic Association, of which John Dougherty is president.

The RDA subpoena involved the sale of a public parcel to a partnership associated with Ron Caplan, the developer who used Donald Dougherty’s firm on several projects, including one the RDA property was part of.

John Dougherty said he doesn’t know if the RDA matter is related to the Donald Dougherty investigation.

John Dougherty said the civic-association subpoena had been a request for records related to the zoning of the properties Donald Dougherty bought to build his house in the neighborhood.

The nature of the feds’ interest in that zoning matter is unclear.

John Dougherty said he’ll cooperate with investigators in any of his civic, labor or government roles, and he has no worries about his conduct.

“The government has a job to do,” Dougherty said, “and I’m a pretty prominent player in the process these days. I know they have a job to do, and I support whatever they’re doing.”

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Copyright (c) 2006, Philadelphia Daily News

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