Boston Calling verdict could have legs

Implications on negotiations and politics

TWELVE JURORS took six hours to convict two Boston City Hall aides, closing another chapter in federal prosecutors’ long-running effort to police Massachusetts government and politics.

Ken Brissette and Timothy Sullivan, who resigned soon after the trial ended Wednesday, pressured organizers of the Boston Calling music festival to hire union labor in 2014, which the organizers did even though they didn’t think it was necessary.

Unlike more straightforward cases of public corruption, the Boston Calling trial played out on the legal margins, and the court fight will continue into the appellate level to determine whether the verdict should stand. Neither Brissette, who was convicted of extortion and conspiracy, nor Sullivan, who was convicted of conspiracy and acquitted of extortion, stood to gain personally from the union hires.

Given the narrow path that Judge Leo Sorokin sketched for jurors to reach a guilty verdict – which included the judge’s assertion that political favors are legal – the decision was surprising to Jack Cunha, a criminal defense attorney who spoke to the Boston Globe.

“The question is ‘Was it a verdict that was decided on emotion rather than the law?’” Cunha asked.

The public hasn’t yet heard from those jurors – which included eight women and four men – but Chris Villani, of Law360, tweeted that the temporary public servants’ names and addresses will be available next Wednesday.

Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Steven Tolman called the verdict an “outright attack on working people and the people of Boston,” and predicted that even if Sorokin allows the decision to stand it will be overturned at the appellate level.

With the trial concluded, other non-legal questions remain: Will the guilty verdict cause political damage to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh? Will it change how government officials interact with business?

On that last score, Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards, a former labor attorney, told WGBH she worries the decision will have a “chilling effect” on City Hall’s ability to reach favorable terms with businesses.

“There are corporations, developers who are absolutely gleeful with this decision — about how much more they can take from Boston without being held accountable,” Edwards said.

The editorial page of the Globe, which is dealing with its own labor unrest, reached a similar conclusion, but from a different vantage, cheering on the jury and pondering whether the verdict will “finally send the message to every other city official in every other corner of City Hall that the-way-it’s-always-been is no excuse?”

In a laconic statement, Walsh said he was “surprised and disappointed” by the verdict, and believes Brissette and Sullivan’s “hearts were in the right place.”

Walsh has weathered previous controversies stemming from his ultimately fruitless pursuits of the 2024 Summer Olympics and an IndyCar race on city streets. It would be ironic if the event that causes lasting political damage is the popular concert series that was successfully pulled off.

Taken together with the acquittal two years ago of four Teamsters in a similar labor case with a City Hall nexus, there is an odd and inconsistent message emanating from the federal courts. In that earlier case, union members allegedly hurled racial epithets and sexist slurs, and threatened Padma Lakshmi during filming for a Top Chef episode in Milton, but that shameful conduct did not constitute federal extortion.

US Attorney Andrew Lelling had a precedent-setting takeaway from Wednesday’s verdict, telling reporters, “Today is a reminder that pursuing a political agenda is one thing but forcing citizens to do your business through threats of financial ruin is something else.”

Someone ought to tell the president that his top prosecutor in Massachusetts believes making threats of financial ruin is wrong. After all, President Donald Trump has a long history of using his bully pulpit to belittle, cajole, and threaten businesses such as Amazon, CNN, and General Motors to do his political bidding.

Meet the Author

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.

More than a year ago, after Trump’s tweets appeared to cost Amazon billions of dollars in market cap, CNN compiled a list of the companies Trump has attacked.

More recently, after the president called foul, the Defense Department put a hold on a $10 billion cloud computing contract for Amazon – a company Trump counts among his political opposition because its CEO owns the Washington Post.