The Codcast: Corruption or advocacy?

When two aides to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh were convicted earlier this month on federal charges of conspiring to extort organizers of the Boston Calling music festival in 2014, US Attorney Andrew Lelling touted it as another victory for efforts to root out corruption in government.

But a lot of people don’t see it that way. The case has generated a tremendous amount of blowback from advocates, labor leaders, legal experts, and, last week, most members of the Boston City Council, who say the US attorney’s office has criminalized the usual give-and-take of political advocacy. 

“We’re in a different world where advocacy is now considered extortion,” said Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards on this week’s Codcast. She called it a “true concern” and said the convictions have created incredible uncertainty for elected officials and advocates who are accustomed to pushing their causes vigorously, but now wonder whether that could land them in prosecutors’ crosshairs. 

The case against Kenneth Brissette and Tim Sullivan was that they strong-armed Boston Calling organizers into hiring union stagehands — help the festival leaders said they didn’t need — in order to secure necessary city permits. Last week, 10 of the 13 members of the Boston City Council joined the chorus of criticism of the case. In a statement, they denounced the prosecution as a “grievous misuse of limited prosecutorial resources” and said it “sets a terrible precedent where government officials who personally received nothing of value can nonetheless face criminal penalties for advocacy that federal prosecutors deem too aggressive.” 

Edwards, a former labor lawyer who made her mark championing the cause of exploited domestic workers, led the council effort. She acknowledges that she is, in many ways, an unlikely leader of a council effort seen by some as a defense of backroom wheeling and dealing. 

A political outsider accustomed to battling the powers that be, Edwards won an open race for the seat representing East Boston, Charlestown, and the North End by beating a candidate backed by Walsh. Lots of voters felt “putting me in city government was helping to stop some of that,” she said of insider politics that can cut the public out of the decision-making process. 

But Edwards said it is her background as an outsider, as a rabble-rousing labor lawyer and community activist, that caused her to be alarmed by the federal convictions. “Sometimes pressure is all we got,” she said.

That was the rationale behind full-page ads taken last week in both Boston daily papers by a coalition of 70 nonprofit organizations. The convictions, the ad said, “will have a chilling effect on our democracy. It is through advocacy, organizing, and good government that democracy is built.”   

The claims of advocates and city councilors were met with strong condemnation from Lelling and opinion leaders around town. 

“You know what has a chilling effect on democracy?” wrote Globe columnist Joan Vennochi. “Telling concert organizers if they don’t hire union workers they don’t need or want, the City of Boston won’t give them a permit for their event.” 

A Herald editorial called the council statement “appalling” and “clueless” and commended Lelling for “bringing shakedown artists to justice.” 

A Globe editorial, under the headline “The dumbing down of ‘wrongful’ conduct,” declared: “That a majority of the Boston City Council can’t tell the difference between extortion — which involved in this case putting a business in fear — and advocating for constituents is appalling and perhaps tells us more than we may want to know about how they conduct business.” 

But Edwards says there has been a “blurring” of the lines between legal advocacy and illegal extortion. “I don’t think there’s any clarity now,” she said. “You can push to a certain extent, but you can’t go too far because if you make someone feel pressure that they might lose money, then all of a sudden you could be in the field of extortion, even if you don’t receive anything.” 

“They’re trying to litigate instead of legislate or try to push for more robust lobbying laws,” Edwards said of efforts to bring criminal charges for behavior some might find objectionable. She called the Globe editorial’s “dumbing down” headline, accompanied by a photo of herself and fellow City Councilor Kim Janey, who are both black, an “offensive” use of “dog whistle tactics.”  

The Globe editorial says advocacy that’s out in the open and shared through public filings in the give and take over a development project is very different from threats implied in closed-door conversations that are never subjected to public scrutiny. And as Vennochi points out in her column, former City Hall aide Joe Rull testified in the trial under an immunity deal that when Brissette wanted to use the same “hardball tactic during a previous disagreement concerning the use of nonunion production workers he told him, ‘You can’t do that, it’s not legal.’”

While the public debate over the line between advocacy and extortion continues, courts will sort out the legal distinction. The judge in the Boston Calling trial, Leo Sorokin, who has shown considerable skepticism of the government’s case, is now weighing a petition by the defense for a “judgment of acquittal,” which would essentially overturn the verdict. Barring that outcome, appeals will follow. With government corruption convictions from federal cases in Massachusetts and elsewhere overturned in recent years on appeal, the final outcome is far from certain. 

MICHAEL JONAS


MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Twenty-six families living in one of Stoughton’s public housing developments will receive free renovations to the homes they rent, thanks to a $650,000 grant from the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development. (Brockton Enterprise) 

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Continuing his zigzagging trade talk, President Trump on Monday called President Xi of China a “great leader” only days after branding him an “enemy” of the US. (New York Times) Congress might pass legislation restricting the use of federal dollars to purchase CRRC subway cars, which would result in 185 job losses at the company’s Springfield assembly plant. (NPR)

A Hong Kong police officer fired the first gunshot – a warning shot in the air – amid a violent protest as citizens of the semi-autonomous island strain against Chinese authorities. (NPR)

ELECTIONS

Sen. Ed Markey has brought on John Walsh, the former state Democratic Party chairman and campaign manager for former governor Deval Patrick, as a top campaign aide for his 2020 reelection effort. (Boston Globe) Markey’s would-be primary challenger, Rep. Joe Kennedy, has upped his profile since President Trump’s election in 2016. (Boston Globe)

Concerns grow over Joe Biden’s gift of gaffe to opponents, as he declares himself thrilled to be in Vermont while speaking at an appearance in Keene, New Hampshire. (Boston Herald

Joe Walsh, a conservative former Tea Party congressman, says he’s running for president in the Republican primaries, calling President Trump “unfit” and declaring, “The country is sick of this guy’s tantrum, he’s a child.” (Vox)

The Lowell Sun breaks down the upcoming choices for how Lowell will change its electoral process, and looks at some of the recent moves by candidates, including prime lawn sign real estate, and an upcoming appearance by former congresswoman Niki Tsongas.

The at-large Boston City Council races feature lots of names but little drama. (Dorchester Reporter)

Even though the Democratic State Committee unanimously voted to call on the Democratic National Committee to hold a presidential debate about climate change, Gus Bickford, the state party’s chairman, voted against it because it would have altered rules the candidates signed onto. (WGBH)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The marijuana store that opened five months ago in Brookline Village is one of the busiest in the country. (Boston Globe

As blue chip company CEOs pledge to put their workers and communities on par with profits, that’s been the operating ethos of Market Basket for years, writes Grant Welker. (Lowell Sun)  

EDUCATION

Boston’s academic giants are treating their student workers poorly, says Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards. (CommonWealth)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Rates of sexually-transmitted diseases are at an all-time high just as Planned Parenthood gives up the federal funding it received to treat STDs because of conditions placed on the funding that would bar the organization from providing information on abortion. (Boston Globe

The Sunday Globe features several pieces on Lyme disease, including one on the ongoing debate over claims of chronic infection with the tick-borne bacteria. A Globe editorial urges more support for vaccine development. 

A Fairhaven woman, the fourth person in Massachusetts to contract the Eastern equine encephalitis virus this year, has died, according to a social media post from her daughter. (Standard-Times) 

TRANSPORTATION

Ted Pyne of TransitMatters argues that the state Department of Transportation could be doing a lot more to improve bus service, particularly on the Silver Line 3 route. (CommonWealth)

Glenn Berkowitz of A Better City says public-private partnerships could be the answer to building new bus garages for the T. (CommonWealth)

The drama with the T never ends. A fire on the train tracks on Friday shut down service on the Orange Line. (CommonWealth)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Vineyard Wind, its first Massachusetts wind farm proposal in limbo, bids on a second project along with two other companies. A competitive process had been in doubt. (CommonWealth)

Goats helped clean up 15,000-square-feet of brush at a wastewater plant in Barnstable, in an environmentally-friendly endeavor. (Cape Cod Times) 

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the transfer of Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station to the company that plans to decommission the Plymouth facility, ignoring the objections of Gov. Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey, and US Sen. Edward Markey. (CommonWealth)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

David Ortiz has hired former Boston police commissioner Ed Davis to dispatch a team of investigators to the Dominican Republican to try to determine why he was shot by a gunman on June 9. (Boston Globe)

In a conversation with CommonWealth, Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni explains why he is launching a special court for young adult offenders.

MEDIA

How’s the Philadelphia Inquirer doing as a nonprofit? (Nieman Journalism Lab)

PASSINGS 
Gerard O’Neill, a founding member of the Boston Globe’s investigative Spotlight Team and for many years its editor, died last week at age 76. (Boston Globe)