A federal appeals court has reversed several convictions of extortion and racketeering against two former Teamsters found guilty in 2014 of using the threat of pickets to pressure businesses into hiring union workers.
The reversal of the convictions against the Teamsters, John Perry and Joseph “JoJo” Burhoe, is another setback for the US attorney’s office, which last month lost a high-profile extortion case against four other Teamsters accused of shaking down producers of the reality television show “Top Chef.”
In a 75-page decision, Judge Juan Torruella of the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit wrote that the men’s actions against several companies and organizations, including Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Great Bridal, did not violate the Hobbs Act, a 1946 law that made it a federal crime to use robbery or extortion to influence interstate commerce, because the defendants were seeking real jobs for themselves and their members.
“Not only were the jobs not fictitious, the government failed to prove that the union members did not perform actual work,” Torruella wrote in a decision that came down late Friday afternoon.
A spokeswoman for acting US Attorney William D. Weinreb said prosecutors would withhold comment until they reviewed the decision.
Miriam Conrad, the head federal public defender in Boston who represented Burhoe, said she was thrilled and relieved by the reversals.
“The court recognized what we argued from the beginning of this case five years ago: that threats of pickets are a legitimate labor tool and that union members have a right to seek work that is being done by nonunion members at lower wages,” Conrad said in a prepared statement.
Michael Schneider, the lawyer for Perry, said the former labor leader was grateful for the decision.
“Mr. Perry has been a committed union leader, well respected by both the members he served and the employers he worked with,” Schneider said. “He is gratified that the First Circuit realized that he had the legal right to do that and that if he hadn’t been doing that, he would not have been doing his job.”
The case, which Torruella described as “factually complex,” centered on whether the men’s actions between 2007 and 2011 constituted the crime of extortion or whether they fall within the historically protected rights of unions to organize and protest.
Torruella also wrote that the instructions given to the jury were problematic and misleading.
“The court failed to specifically instruct the jury, as the defendants requested, that picketing to alert the public that an employer hires nonunion workers undertaken to maintain the prevailing wage in the community is a legitimate labor objective,” wrote Torruella. “We do not see how peaceful picketing in pursuit of turning around jobs to maintain the prevailing wage can be deemed activity in pursuit of an illegitimate labor objective.”
The appeals court did give prosecutors another chance to convict Burhoe on a count of extortion for pressuring Four Pints, a beer tasting company, into hiring union workers for an event at the Boston Park Plaza Castle in 2008.
“The testimony that money was paid in return for no work at all by the union members leaves open the possibility that the threat of a picket was used to exact a payoff, rather than as a means to obtain actual work,” Torruella wrote. That conviction was vacated and the court called for a new trial.
The appeals court upheld a conviction on a lesser charge that the two men violated a statute that forbids union members from holding particular positions in the union if they have prior criminal convictions.
The jury found that Burhoe, a career criminal who has been stabbed and shot and had served time in prison for a bank robbery, acted as a union representative in violation of the statute, and Perry was convicted of allowing him to have that position.
Burhoe was 46 and Perry was 62 when they were convicted in November 2014 after a six-week trial during which employees and managers of hotels, catering companies, and nonprofit organizations testified about aggressive tactics and intimidating behavior.
An event manager for Wolfgang Puck, which had been hired to cater an event at the Institute of Contemporary Art in November 2008, testified that he had felt threatened by the Teamsters.
The manager, William Doane, said during the trial that he was told “if we didn’t put them on there, that they would have a hundred guys picketing down here within an hour [of] the event.”
Perry, former secretary treasurer of Local 82, was sentenced to 30 months and has been released.
Burhoe is still serving his 70-month sentence in a federal prison in Danbury, Conn. Conrad said she would file a motion early next week asking for his release.
Two other union members were also charged in the case: Thomas Flaherty, who was acquitted on all counts, and James Deamicis, who was acquitted on some counts but was later convicted and sentenced to one year in prison. Deamicis appealed his conviction, which is pending.Maria Cramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @globemcramer.