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Brissette, Sullivan prevail in corruption case, but City Hall must learn from it

The case against City Hall officials Timothy Sullivan (left) and Kenneth Brissette has come to a close.
The case against City Hall officials Timothy Sullivan (left) and Kenneth Brissette has come to a close.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff file photos

In an unusually deft Friday evening news dump, US Attorney Andrew Lelling announced that the long-running Boston Calling nightmare has come to a close.

“The government has decided not to appeal the court’s reversal of the jury verdict,” he declared in a statement. “We have prevailed in this case before both the court of appeals and a jury, but after nearly four years of litigation it is time for the government to move on.”

Thus ends the long prosecution of Ken Brissette and Tim Sullivan, aides to Mayor Marty Walsh who were convicted of strong-arming a Boston Calling music festival promoter into hiring union workers who had supported the mayor for work on a weekend concert on City Hall Plaza in 2015.

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Their indictment was quashed not once but twice by US District Judge Leo Sorokin. Sullivan and Brissette were quickly convicted by a jury a few months ago, before Sorokin reversed its decision. If nothing else, it has followed perhaps the most convoluted path of any corruption case in Boston history.

I’ve always been of two minds about the Boston Calling case, because I think the actions of Brissette and Sullivan were truly stupid, and not in the public interest, but probably didn’t rise to the level of prosecution, much less incarceration.

Lelling — who inherited this case from his predecessor, Carmen Ortiz — has quickly shown himself to be an aggressive federal prosecutor, and one who isn’t shy about going after public corruption. But he made the right call in walking away from this problematic case. It isn’t worth an investment of substantially more time or public resources.

Sullivan and Brissette were convicted of extortion for forcing the organizers of Boston Calling to hire union workers to work as stagehands for the weekend festival. At least one of them threatened to revoke their city permits if they didn’t comply.

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Sorokin has been nothing short of brutal in his condemnation of the government’s behavior. In his decision reversing the jury’s verdict, he implied that the feds had withheld potentially exculpatory evidence that might have led to a different conclusion. More broadly, he clearly takes a dim view of the idea that defendants who received nothing for themselves extorted anyone. To say he never liked the case is an understatement.

“This action is required based on the government’s failure to prove that either man committed the charged offenses,” Sorokin said in his ruling, acknowledging that overturning a jury decision is a rare act. The judge found that prosecutors had misapplied the federal Hobbs Act extortion law to conduct that is typically governed at the state and local level.

“Even under the government’s narrower view of its burden of proof, it failed to establish that either defendant acted wrongfully, as is required to sustain an extortion conviction,” he wrote. Ouch.

Besides the defendants — who now get their lives, and careers back — the obvious winner here is Walsh. The cloud of corruption that has hung over City Hall as a result of this case is a lot lighter now. That can only be good for the mayor, and his future prospects.

Still, I think the administration must learn some lessons from this case. Threatening to damage someone’s business if they don’t hire supporters of the mayor — even if only for a weekend — is no way to conduct city business. It’s deeply troubling that, to this day, Walsh, and many of the people around him, have never really seemed to get what’s wrong with that. Let me spell it out: Being able to run your business shouldn’t rely on hiring the mayor’s supporters, whether they are in a union or not. This really shouldn’t be hard for City Hall to get its collective head around.

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But the actions of Brissette and Sullivan don’t begin to merit the punishment they’ve suffered. If the federal government wanted to send a message about unacceptable behavior, surely it has. That might have been the only victory within Lelling’s grasp.


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.