Jeremy Roebuck, Inquirer Staff Writer
Last updated: Thursday, June 18, 2015, 1:08 AM
Posted: Wednesday, June 17, 2015, 4:59 PM
Whenever union ironworker Richard Ritchie became involved, already tense situations tended to escalate.
A protégé of Local 401 boss Joseph Dougherty, he often bragged about his willingness to get aggressive with contractors who refused to hire union workers. He questioned union leaders whom he considered too timid to deliver a threat or throw a punch. And once he set his sight on running for union business manager, he turned a normally staid election process into a back-channel smear campaign.
But as he faced the federal judge who sentenced him Wednesday to four years in prison for racketeering conspiracy and extortion, Ritchie’s goal was mitigation.
“I am not an animal, nor am I a thug,” said the 46-year-old East Falls native, known as “Double R” to his fellow tradesmen.
He apologized to his family and victims, but said he had been “bred” into the union’s way of doing things and insisted he played only a minor role in one of the more serious attacks with which he had been charged.
Moments earlier, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Baylson had accepted the conditional plea agreement Ritchie struck with prosecutors last year, which would have allowed him to back out if the judge imposed any sentence greater than four years.
Baylson already rejected a similar deal struck with union business agent Christopher Prophet, saying the suggested sentence was too light for a man who held a leadership role in a group that encouraged members to commit acts of sabotage and violence to maintain their grip on city construction jobs.
Ritchie’s family and friends gasped audibly in the packed courtroom Wednesday when Baylson indicated he would accept Ritchie’s deal. His status as a rank-and-file member made his situation different from Prophet’s, Baylson said. The judge also ordered Ritchie to pay more than $25,000 in restitution in addition to his prison term.
“You’re probably lucky you didn’t get to become a business manager,” the judge said.
Yet there was a time when Ritchie wanted nothing more.
Prosecutors have described Ironworkers Local 401 as a union in which intimidation and violence served as more than just a negotiating tactic – they were ingrained into the structure of the organization.
Workers who received the best assignments and moved up in the hierarchy were often the ones most willing to participate in arsons, vandalism, and intimidation of contractors who refused to hire the group’s members.
Ritchie, who joined the union at 18, proved particularly willing.
In 2009, he joined a group under Prophet known as the “shadow gang,” which took sledgehammers to a nonunion construction site at the Merion East golf course.
The next year he showed up at what had been a tense but nonviolent picket line outside a Toys R Us store under construction in King of Prussia. Within moments, he had rallied a group of ironworkers to attack the job’s nonunion tradesmen with baseball bats.
Prophet insisted Wednesday that he had not wielded a bat during the incident. Still, his involvement boosted his stature within the union.
He quickly earned a spot on the executive board and set his signs on the job of business agent, an elected leadership post with duties including drumming up work for union members.
In wiretapped conversations detailed in court filings, Ritchie complained to Dougherty about two business agents – describing one as too timid to threaten a contractor and another as an incapable drunk.
For his mentor, however, Ritchie only had the kindest words: “You’re always gonna be the Jimmy Hoffa of this local,” he told Dougherty. “You carry this union, and you’re always gonna be this union.”
Dougherty is scheduled to be sentenced next month. Prophet is due back in court Thursday, when he is expected to decide whether to accept a new plea deal or to withdraw his plea and take his case to trial.