2 Walsh aides cleared of federal charges

When two Boston City Hall aides were found guilty on federal charges for pressuring officials at the Boston Calling music festival to hire union labor, critics pointed to the trial as prosecutorial overreach and the criminalization of politics.

Apparently, those critics were right.

On Wednesday, in a step that even he acknowledged was unusual, US District Court Judge Leo Sorokin overturned a jury’s August 2019 decision finding former Mayor Marty Walsh aides Ken Brissette and Tim Sullivan guilty of conspiracy to commit extortion and, in Brissette’s case, extortion.

Sorokin wrote that his 90-page decision was “based on the government’s failure to prove that either man committed the charged offenses.” He noted that neither Brissette nor Sullivan received a personal payoff from their conduct and questioned the applicability of the federal anti-extortion Hobbs Act to this case.

Brissette was Boston’s tourism director and Sullivan was head of intergovernmental affairs when they allegedly pressured Boston Calling to hire unnecessary union labor for a 2014 festival. Walsh is a former labor union official.

Company officials testified at trial that they worried they would not get city permits if they did not hire union stagehands. Brissette and Sullivan’s lawyers said they simply suggested hiring union workers to avoid an embarrassing public protest.

US Attorney Andrew Lelling, whose office prosecuted the men, said in a statement, “An impartial jury, following legal instructions written by the Court, voted unanimously to convict these two men.  We are disappointed by this decision and will review our options.”

Brissette’s attorneys, in a statement reported by the AP, said Brissette and Sullivan did nothing wrong, and “Today’s ruling is consistent with our arguments that the evidence in this case did not support the charges brought against them.”

Lelling’s initial decision to prosecute, and the jury’s guilty verdict, drew strong criticism. Defense lawyer and civil liberties advocate Harvey Silverglate wrote for WGBH that the case was “dangerous to civil society and, not so incidentally, to all of our civil liberties” by blurring the line between illegal extortion and lawful political pressure.

Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards told WGBH that she worried the verdict will have a “chilling effect” on city officials’ ability to press corporations for favorable terms in city contracts.

In a Boston Herald op-ed, political strategist Joyce Ferriabough Bolling wrote that the case presents “a dangerous precedent to activists who have to negotiate, compromise, cajole, or sometimes even force-feed solutions” by lessening the distinction between advocacy and bribery.

Long-time defense attorney Martin Weinberg told the Boston Globe that it was “an unorthodox prosecution that was far outside the norm of federal extortion law.”

Sorokin himself dismissed the charges in 2018, but they were reinstated by a US Appeals Court judge.

The Boston Globe reported Wednesday that federal prosecutors could appeal the ruling, but Sorokin said, if that happens, he would call for a new trial. The initial trial lasted two weeks.

It is not the first time federal prosecutors in Boston have failed in bringing extortion charges over union-related pressure. In 2014, a federal jury acquitted four Teamsters of threatening the non-union cast and crew of reality TV show Top Chef. Two other Teamsters were found guilty in 2014 for using aggressive behavior to pressure businesses to hire union workers, but their convictions were overturned on appeal.

Silverglate drew a parallel to the US Supreme Court’s decision to toss federal corruption charges against former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who received fancy gifts from a company CEO in exchange for helping his business. That decision centered on what constituted an “official act” by McDonnell.

Closer to home, Sorokin’s ruling recalls the Probation Department patronage hiring scandal. Probation Commissioner John O’Brien and deputies Elizabeth Tavares and William Burke were convicted by a jury in July 2014 for running a rigged hiring system — hiring employees based on political connections, not merit, then lying when they certified that the hires were done correctly.

As with the Boston Calling case, some critics called that prosecution overreach. A federal Appeals Court agreed and overturned the guilty verdicts.

Judge Juan Torruella wrote in that case a maxim that could just as easily apply here: “Not all unappealing conduct is criminal.”

SHIRA SCHOENBERG


Massachusetts is facing a transportation crisis. Roads, bridges, and transit statewide urgently need investment. The gas tax, which has increased by only 3 cents since 1991, is a proven, stable, and immediate solution to make our commutes better. Learn more at www.t4ma.org/progress.


BEACON HILL

Attorney General Maura Healey sues JUUL, accusing the e-cigarette company of creating the youth vaping epidemic. (CommonWealth)

Sen. Diana DiZoglio defends her shift on an immigrant driver’s license bill by pointing to amended language and police support for it. (State House News)

A new Tufts University center headed by former Boston Globe reporter Evan Horowitz prepares to offer independent analysis of state legislation and ballot questions. (CommonWealth)

Gov. Charlie Baker proposes transferring four of Boston’s parkways (Storrow Drive, Soldiers Field Road, Morrissey Boulevard, and Day Boulevard) from control of the Department of Conservation and Recreation to MassDOT. (CommonWealth)

Rep. Dan Cullinane announces he is stopping down at the end of this term. (Dorchester Reporter)

Two members of the Governor’s Council are again crying foul over what they say are politically-wired appointments to court clerk positions by the Baker administration. (Boston Herald)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Boston City Councilor Julia Mejia is proposing that parking tickets be income adjusted, so low-income scofflaws would pay less. (Boston.com)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

President Trump is increasingly employing the powers of the executive branch as an “instrument for his personal and political vendetta against perceived enemies,” reports the Washington Post.

Former White House chief of staff John Kelly lets loose on President Trump in an appearance at a New Jersey university. (The Atlantic)

President Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner has been quietly trying to resurrect discussions to overhaul the US immigration system, multiple people familiar with the conversations have told NPR. (WGBH)

ELECTIONS

The Democratic presidential nominating battle could be a drawn-out affair that stretches into the summer after the split decisions in Iowa and New Hampshire. (Boston Globe) However, it will no longer include former governor Deval Patrick, who ended his longshot bid after garnering less than half of 1 percent of the New Hampshire primary vote. (MassLive)

Larry Ellison, the chairman of Oracle, is hosting a fundraiser for President Trump at his home. (Desert Sun) Ellison has backed Republicans in the past, but he’s the biggest tech titan to rally behind Trump. (Vox)

IMMIGRATION

Mark Morgan, the head of US Customs and Border Protection, says officials in the Seattle office were overzealous in detaining Iranian-Americans coming into the country. He says that overzealousness was confined to Seattle, but immigrant advocates say the same practice was happening elsewhere across the country. (NPR)

Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, the policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, explains how the Trump administration uses the “hidden weapons” of immigration law. (New Yorker)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Jim Murren steps down as head of MGM Resorts International, parent company of MGM Springfield (MassLive)

EDUCATION

The US Department of Education has opened a probe into whether Harvard and Yale universities have failed to properly disclose hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign gifts and contracts. (Boston Globe)

At Worcester Tech, adult students can become certified in welding, plumbing and HVAC through evening classes; it’s an initiative Gov. Charlie Baker wants to see statewide. (MassLive)

North Shore Community College president Patricia Gentile says innovative funding is needed for Massachusetts community colleges. (The Salem News)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Progress slows on curbing opioid deaths in Massachusetts, as the number of fatalities remains flat. (WBUR) Opioid overdose deaths are on the rise in Worcester. (Telegram & Gazette) A woman who nearly died from an overdose drops off some baked goods and a thank you note at the Natick Police Department. (MetroWest Daily News)

ARTS/CULTURE

A play written by students and staff at Eastern Nazarene College depicts a yearlong project with students making weekly visits to Father Bill’s Place, a homeless shelter in Quincy. (Patriot Ledger)

TRANSPORTATION

East-West rail sees significant public support at a public meeting in Springfield despite a price tag in the billions. (MassLive) Most who spoke questioned Gov. Charlie Baker’s motives and the study’s ridership numbers. (Western Mass Politics & Insight)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

The Conservation Law Foundation petitioned the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association Thursday morning to prohibit fishing of Atlantic cod until the federal agency implements measures that will end overfishing. (Cape Cod Times)

CASINOS

Jim Murren, the chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts, which operates the casino in Springfield, is stepping down. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Plymouth District Attorney Timothy Cruz has announced the launch of a tip line and email address for the public to submit information regarding currently unsolved homicides in the county. (The Enterprise)

A female Mount Holyoke College professor pleads not guilty to attacking a colleague in her home using a rock, garden shears, and a poker. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

MEDIA

In another sign of the crisis in US journalism, McClatchy, one of the country’s biggest newspaper publishers, filed for bankruptcy protection to reorganize $700 million in debt. (Washington Post) The move will primarily shed pension debt and give control of the company to hedge fund Chatham Asset Management. McClatchy’s holdings include the Kansas City Star, the Miami Herald, Charlotte Observer, and the Sacramento Bee. (McClatchy)