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Shirley Leung

Teamsters case casts an unwanted cloud over City Hall

The behavior alleged in the indictment of Teamsters members represented “old school thug tactics,” said US Attorney Carmen Oritz (right).  Two sentences about an unnamed official’s phone calls to Boston businesses have drawn Mayor Martin J. Walsh (left) into the controversy.
The behavior alleged in the indictment of Teamsters members represented “old school thug tactics,” said US Attorney Carmen Oritz (right). Two sentences about an unnamed official’s phone calls to Boston businesses have drawn Mayor Martin J. Walsh (left) into the controversy. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Can Marty Walsh stay out of the pocket of the unions?

It was the burning question of his 2013 race whether a labor leader could be mayor for all, or whether he would do the bidding of a group that bankrolled his campaign.

Since his election, Walsh has tried to show his independence. He negotiated a new patrolmen and firefighters contract without going to expensive arbitration, he got the teachers union to agree to an extended school day, and he is open to the idea of labor concessions to help rein in housing costs.

But questions about Walsh’s loyalty came roaring back last week after two sentences about City Hall’s role showed up in a federal indictment accusing members of Teamsters Local 25 of extortion.

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A member of the Walsh administration allegedly warned the Omni Parker House hotel and the Boston restaurant Menton of possible protests if “Top Chef” filmed at those locations. The Teamsters, according to the indictment, threatened to picket if the reality TV show didn’t hire their members.

Neither the demonstration nor the act of tipping off the businesses is illegal, but the fact that US Attorney Carmen Ortiz flagged a possible role by City Hall raises questions. How exactly did City Hall deliver the message? Did Walsh or his administration in some way condone the alleged bad behavior of the Teamsters, which Ortiz described as “old school thug tactics”?

The Walsh administration has said the city supported “Top Chef” by issuing permits, while the mayor himself made a cameo on the show. Beyond that, Walsh hasn’t divulged much about what’s going on — and he wouldn’t get on the phone with me because it’s a legal matter now.

But in this case, his actions are saying a lot, as City Hall lawyered up and hired Brian Kelly, a former federal corruption prosecutor to conduct an internal investigation and to answer questions from the feds.

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The message: The mayor understands these are serious allegations. To put it in perspective, Mayor Tom Menino was in office for two decades, and FBI files released last spring showed the late politician was never implicated in any wrongdoing.

Kelly, a partner at Nixon Peabody, tells me one of the things he’ll be doing is figuring out if anyone from the city actually made those calls. He will also be conducting an internal review.

“The city wants to be open about this and find out what happened here,” Kelly said.

Let’s be clear here. The Teamsters probe is not your garden-variety contretemps. It’s one thing for Walsh to take controversial stands, such as waging war with casino mogul Steve Wynn or pursuing an unpopular bid to host the Olympics.

It’s altogether another thing to find your administration popping up in a federal case. Now I have no inside information about what happened or where Ortiz’s investigation is heading, but this matter has the potential to rattle a young administration, and that could be bad news for all of us.

Here’s how: It’s not just residents who care about stability in City Hall; business leaders and investors want it in their mayor, too. That’s what Menino provided, and Walsh, for the most part, has been a steady hand at the helm.

But the feds looking over your shoulder is never a good thing. Up until now, the popular Walsh with his huge war chest seemed a shoo-in for another term, or even two. Now I’ve got to think potential challengers are watching and waiting to see where this investigation goes.

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Walsh supporters will paint this as City Hall giving a courtesy call to Boston businesses that could be disrupted by a union action. In other words, nothing to see here, everyone move along. But there aren’t any throwaway lines in indictments.

“The words in the indictment mean something,” said a former US attorney, Michael Sullivan. “They wouldn’t put it in there for no purpose at all.”

Sullivan, whose tenure as a federal prosecutor included bringing down former Teamsters boss George Cashman, said Walsh will be judged on how he reacts to the investigation.

“There are some things even as mayor you don’t have control over. It’s how you respond to it,” said Sullivan, now a partner in The Ashcroft Law Firm in Boston. “The mayor’s response has been pretty swift in bringing in an outside counsel — and rightfully so. Obviously, you want the public to have confidence in the integrity of the office.”

Sullivan knows Kelly, the lawyer representing City Hall. He headed up the public corruption unit under Sullivan in the US attorney’s office.

“He will leave no stone unturned,” Sullivan said of Kelly. “He will be very candid in his assessment.”

The question is whether Kelly will act more like a defense attorney protecting the administration or a true third-party investigator working on behalf of the taxpayers who are paying his legal fees.

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Walsh could make that answer clear by vowing to make all of Kelly’s work public, no matter where it leads.

“Transparency is always a good thing,” Kelly told me, but “ultimately it will be up to the city on what it wants to do.”

Telling all will go a long way to show that Walsh is mayor for all.


Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.