When did it become a crime to fight for good jobs?

Verdict against Walsh aides criminalizes legitimate advocacy

THE FEDERAL TRIAL of Tim Sullivan and Ken Brissette has upended the notion of Boston City Hall fighting for the interests of its residents.

When I was Mayor Ray Flynn’s director of neighborhood services, I never had to be told by the mayor that my job was to advocate for the interests of Boston’s neighborhood residents. That was who Ray Flynn was. If I had been indicted for all the times I did that, I would probably still be in jail.

The US Attorney never questioned it when the late former Mayor Tom Menino refused to allow Chick-fil-A or Walmart into the city (both decisions I applaud) or when he bragged in his book about selecting his friends for major development deals. A clearheaded understanding would see that fairness and equity require City Hall to balance the interests of competing constituencies, not only sell access and development rights in the city to the highest bidder.

The indictment – and now conviction — of Sullivan and Brissette was a clear case of overreach by the US Attorney’s office. First brought by former US Attorney Carmen Ortiz, appointed by President Obama, the case was later dismissed by US District Judge Leo Sorokin, who ruled that his jury instructions would have required prosecutors to prove that Sullivan and Brissette personally benefited from the hiring of union workers.

Then, President Trump appointed US Attorney Andrew Lelling, who couldn’t let it go and appealed Judge Sorokin’s decision to US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. He prevailed and had to prove that advocating for union jobs was a crime. He brought the case to trial to chill advocacy on behalf of working people. This is an all too common tactic to blunt the role of unions in fighting for their members, supported by the anti-union Boston Globe and many others.

What the trial demonstrated is that the Boston Calling music festival at the center of the case was not a non-profit endeavor but a business motivated by greed—to sell more liquor and enhance the profits of the promoters using the public space of City Hall Plaza. For a small permit fee to occupy the plaza for days, promoters Brian Appel and Michael Snow were assured significant profits, as they had been in the past under Mayor Menino, and as a result they agreed to hire a few union stagehands after they were asked to do so.

Mayor Marty Walsh didn’t have to tell Sullivan and Brissette to ask for union jobs; they knew that was why they were in City Hall—to advocate for public benefits, including good-paying jobs for Boston’s union stagehands.

Heading into deliberations, Judge Sorokin told jurors, “Seeking to obtain real work for qualified people is not a wrongful purpose, even if the work was unwanted or unneeded by the employer.”

“It is not a wrongful purpose … for a public official to assist or favor his constituents or political supporters, or to act in the hopes of securing future political support,” he said.

As former police commissioner William Evans testified at the trial, during a meeting with Appel, the Boston Calling promoter complained that without longer hours (to serve alcohol), the concert would not be able to go on. “I remember telling him, ‘If you have to make your money off alcohol, maybe you shouldn’t have the event,’” Evans said. Evans depicted a greedy concert promoter who seemed more concerned with selling alcohol to maximize profits than working with police to make sure the festival was safe, considering the prior year the Boston police captain in charge reported excessive drinking and drinking by minors at the May 2014 event and that a sexual assault occurred at the festival.  “This kid wasn’t being flexible,” Evans said. “He sort of felt entitled: ‘I’m going to get this one way or the other.’”

Appel and Snow were not the politically novice businessmen they claimed to be on the stand, both having donated the maximum political contributions in October 2013 to mayoral candidate  John Connolly and, a week later, to candidate Marty Walsh to cover their bases. They wanted a long term deal for their lucrative festival on Boston City Hall Plaza.

In Boston, working for City Hall is a privilege, which brings with it great responsibility—to advocate for the people of the neighborhoods of Boston over the well-connected moneyed interests of developers and profiteers. The latter do just fine in advocating for themselves and will be cheering the court’s decision so they can do less for the city and its people while reaping huge profits.

It seems clear to me that what Sullivan and Brissette did, like so many before them, was to advocate for benefits for the use of public space by a profit-making enterprise. They should be thanked, not prosecuted. What they did was not a crime, but why the people of Boston twice elected Marty Walsh mayor.

Meet the Author
Former US Attorney Ortiz and current US Attorney Lelling may be pleased, but they should be ashamed, not only for what they did to these two men and their families, but that their actions further erode the ability of city government to serve its residents in an equitable manner.

Don Gillis served as director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services under Mayor Ray Flynn and subsequently was director of the Economic Development and Industrial Corporation of Boston.