You call that extortion?

Concert promoter testifies about union hiring

WAS BOSTON CALLING’S  hiring of union labor in 2014 an extorted demand? Or a bargaining chip?

While federal prosecutors continue to make their case that it was the former, a key witness in the criminal trial acknowledged under cross-examination that it was the latter.

That certainly fogs things up for prosecutors who are trying to prove that Ken Brissette and Timothy Sullivan, who have served as top aides to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, bureaucratically muscled the concert promoters into hiring union workers. If the concert promoter Crash Line Productions viewed those hires as leverage in a related negotiation with City Hall, then that’s a slightly different story.

Brian Appel, one of the founders of Crash Line, walked a fine line in his testimony. Under questioning by federal prosecutors, he said he concluded the best way to obtain permits he needed for the festival was to hire the union workers. He said that feeling intensified after former Boston Police commissioner William Evans ripped the promoter for running an “unsafe and embarrassing event in the mayor’s backyard.”

Assistant US Attorney Laura Kaplan, in her opening statement Tuesday, summed up the prosecution’s key argument. “The defendants knowingly and willingly used Crash Line’s fear of economic harm to force Crash Line to hire nine [union] workers it didn’t want and didn’t need,” Kaplan told jurors in her opening statement Tuesday.

But when questioned on Thursday by lawyers for the defendants, Appeal testified that he thought discussions about hiring union labor could be beneficial in his company’s long-running pursuit of a multi-year lease for City Hall Plaza.

“We thought if we’re going to have a conversation about unions . . . perhaps we can get a lease extension,” Appel said on the stand, noting Walsh’s background in union labor.

“It was more, ‘Let’s use it as a bargaining chip,’” William Cintolo, one of the defense attorneys, suggested.

“Yes,” Appel responded.

Maria Cramer, who is covering the trial for the Boston Globe, highlighted the exchange in her story Friday.

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Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

Kaplan and other federal prosecutors already have a delicate task convincing a jury that Brissette and Sullivan committed the crime of extortion. That’s because there were no threats of violence and neither of them stood to gain monetarily.

The federal courts in recent years have raised the bar for proving corruption cases. The US Supreme Court in 2016 overturned the bribery conviction of former Virginia governor  Robert McDonnell, determining that small political favors didn’t meet the threshold for corrupt official acts, even if distasteful. Locally, a federal appeals court tossed the conviction of former state probation department officials in a patronage case, scolding federal prosecutors for overstepping their bounds and “using federal criminal statutes to police the hiring practices of these Massachusetts state officials.”

The case against Sullivan and Brissette had been dismissed earlier on the grounds that their behavior didn’t qualify as extortion because they didn’t personally benefit from the hires, but an appeals court disagreed, ruling that prosecutors didn’t have to prove the aides personally benefitted. The decision allowed the case to proceed to trial.