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.”


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