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OPINION

Oblique House: The Dickensian tale of prosecutorial overreach in the Curious Case of the Imaginary Offenses

US Attorney Andrew Lelling should close the book on this farce.

The prosecution of Tim Sullivan and Ken Brissette was so tangled and twisted it could have been written by Charles Dickens.
The prosecution of Tim Sullivan and Ken Brissette was so tangled and twisted it could have been written by Charles Dickens.AP

Welcome to Bay State Story Hour. Today, we continue with “Oblique House,” our Dickensian tale about federal prosecutors’ zealous effort to imprison two City Hall aides whose alleged crimes are exceedingly difficult to recount.

Here, unlike Charles Dickens, that great master of figurative prose, we speak ever so literally. That’s why our narrative is subtitled “the Curious Case of the Imaginary Offenses.”

Although the stories are similar, they are not identical. In Dickens’s “Bleak House,” a lawsuit winds on for so long that barristers’ fees consume the entire value of the contested bequest. No such worry here; the US Attorney’s office has deep pockets for prosecutorial pettifoggery. In Oblique House, the government is only grinding up the assets and future earnings of faux felons Tim Sullivan and Ken Brissette.

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Anyway, our story starts back in the misty recesses of Mayor Walsh’s first term, when those two city functionaries were accused of extorting a concert-staging company by pushing it to hire some union members to work a music festival planned for City Hall Plaza.

Even in the early chapters, clues emerged that something was amiss with the prosecution’s case. There was, for example, the strange absence of any allegations that the defendants had gotten anything of any value from the putatively preyed upon producer. Not only had they not lined their own pockets, but they had also neglected even to gobble a metaphorical lobster roll from Crash Line Productions’ festive table.

Which seemed, in the eyes of seasoned prosecutors, to make this less a Hobbs Act violation than a Calvin and Hobbes prosecution.

“This is what I call shooting a mouse with a cannon,” noted one.

“They are indicting someone criminally for conduct that as far as I know has not been criminal,” observed another.

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Once set in motion, however, the wheels of justice have a momentum all their own. And so witnesses were deposed, interrogatories conducted, allegations alleged. Years passed. One indictment superseded another, only to find itself superseded in turn.

And then, finally, the whole ungainly mess of a case oozed into a courtroom in a real way, whereupon the plot quickened, or thickened, in the way that plots are wont to do.

There it fell under the supervision of Judge Leo T. Sorokin, who harbored a steadfast notion behind his learned brow: To convict someone of a crime, there must be credible evidence that they have committed one. For them to qualify as extortionists, the two defendants must have somehow obtained ill-gotten gains, he instructed the jury.

That vexing notion of criminality created a quandary for prosecutors: They couldn’t meet such an impossibly high burden. Thus they appealed Sorokin’s jury instructions — and won a reprieve when an appeals court modified them enough that a crime might be squeezed into their confines. Luck struck again when a quick-draw jury, seemingly worried about finishing their deliberations before the T got too crowded to secure a seat for the ride home, surprised trial attendees by delivering a guilty verdict. Proper justice had been done, puritans and Pecksniffians declared.

But now, in the kind of principled move that can wreak havoc upon a prosecutorial apple cart, Judge Sorokin has overturned the jury’s verdict. Why? Because prosecutors failed “to prove that either man committed the charged offenses.” After all, neither “received a personal payoff or any other cognizable benefit in connection with the charged conduct.” Nor, he ruled, did they trip the other legal standards for conviction.

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What’s more, Judge Sorokin declared that “in its closing argument, the government disregarded clear written rulings of the Court, misstated the law, mischaracterized the evidence, and invited jurors to convict the defendants based on theories the Court had expressly ruled out of the case.”

Zounds!

The government can, of course, appeal Sorokin’s ruling. That decision rests largely with current US Attorney Andrew Lelling, who inherited this case midway through and so owns only a fraction of the folly.

Call me overly optimistic — a Micawber, even — but it’s an opportune time for the government to end this farce and let Sullivan and Brissette get on with their lives.

That is, to close the tattered cover on the tortuous tale that is Oblique House.


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh