City official pleads innocent to extortion charge, released on bond
Federal authorities arrested a top official in Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration for “union-related extortion” Thursday, in the first high-profile corruption case to darken City Hall in two decades.
Kenneth Brissette, 52, Walsh’s director of tourism, sports, and entertainment, was indicted on a charge that he withheld city permits from a popular Boston music festival until it hired union stagehands. He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, according to US Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s office.
An eight-page indictment released Thursday did not identify the music festival Brissette allegedly strong-armed, but the Globe reported last month that federal authorities were investigating whether Brissette had pressured organizers of Boston Calling, a biannual festival held at City Hall Plaza, to use union labor.
The indictment alleges that City Hall pressure went beyond just Brissette: “At least one other City Hall employee” repeatedly told festival organizers they needed to hire union workers, the indictment states. The grand jury did not name any other city employees.
Walsh said Thursday that he never ordered Brissette or anyone else to withhold permits to force companies to use union labor.
“I know I’ve done nothing wrong in any of my doings as mayor of the city of Boston,” Walsh told a crush of reporters at a groundbreaking ceremony for a development project in East Boston. “I’m very confident of that.”
Brissette appeared in shackles Thursday afternoon at a hearing in US District Court in Boston. He pleaded innocent, was released on a $25,000 unsecured bond, and was told to stay away from witnesses. The case was continued until July 12.
In a statement issued through his lawyer, Brissette called the indictment “factually and legally flawed.”
“I intend to fight these false charges with everything at my disposal,” Brissette said through attorney William H. Kettlewell.
Walsh, in a statement, called Brissette “a good and hard-working person.”
“We will continue to work with the US Attorney’s Office to get to the bottom of this,” Walsh said in the statement. “Everyone in my administration should know that there is only one way to do things and that is the right way.”
Walsh said during the press conference that it was “certainly a very sad day” and noted several times that he was “surprised” when he learned of the indictment through a tweet from the US Attorney’s Office.
“I don’t condone any of this type of behavior or anything like this alleged in my administration,” he said. “I tell everyone to be honest and up front and very open.”
The mayor declined to say whether he has appeared before a grand jury. He said he did not know if there would be more indictments at City Hall, and that he had “no idea” if authorities were scrutinizing other special events.
But an event organizer who asked not to be named told the Globe that FBI agents had sought an interview within the past two weeks, to discuss a past entertainment proposal in Boston.
Walsh said he did not know the identity of the other city employee — unnamed in the indictment — who allegedly participated in pressuring Boston Calling.
“I don’t know; you have to talk to the United States attorney about that,” he said.
“I take this job very seriously and . . . the integrity of this job very seriously,” Walsh said. “I represent all the people of the city of Boston, whether they are union or nonunion.”
Brissette, who City Hall staffers say is well-liked, will be on paid administrative leave until the case concludes, Walsh said.
The indictment made public Thursday states that the music festival began in 2013, the last full year of Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s administration. Beginning that March, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Local 11, tried to get work at the festival, but was told that concert organizers had already hired a nonunion company.
The indictment then notes: “In January 2014, the administration of the city of Boston changed.”
Brissette was appointed to his position by Walsh in the spring of 2014. The post gave Brissette a role in the issuance of city permits that the production company needed to stage its show again later that year, Ortiz’s office said.
The indictment alleges that Brissette demanded Boston Calling hire members of Local 11, but was told by festival organizers that they had already hired nonunion help.
Brissette persisted, according to the indictment.
“It is alleged that between July and September 2014, while the company was awaiting the issuance of certain permits and approvals required for its music festival, Brissette, and at least one other city official, repeatedly advised the company that it would need to hire members of Local 11 to work at the music festival,’’ Ortiz’s office said in a statement.
Just days before Boston Calling was scheduled to open its September 2014 show, the city still had not issued required permits.
“As a result of Brissette’s demands three days before the music festival the company entered into a contract with Local 11 for eight additional laborers and one foreman,’’ Ortiz’s office wrote in a statement. “Shortly thereafter, the city of Boston issued the necessary permits.’’
A spokesman for Boston Calling declined to comment Thursday.
IATSE Local 11 said in a statement Thursday it has “fully cooperated with the inquiry surrounding the Boston Calling music festival. We are unaware of alleged illegal activity that may have been committed by any Boston city official.”
Christopher Welling, president of Local 11, told the Globe on Thursday that neither he nor members of his union asked Brissette to use strong-arm tactics on the union’s behalf. He said union representatives met separately with Brissette and members from the office of former Massachusetts secretary of labor Joanne Goldstein because they were concerned that Boston Calling appeared to have been soliciting some volunteer labor.
The federal indictment also states that, shortly after Walsh took office, Brissette warned restaurants that Teamsters members intended to disrupt the filming of the “Top Chef” television show at those restaurants, because the show’s production crew was nonunion.
Many of the allegations related to the “Top Chef” filming were already publicly known, through an indictment last year and a city review of the incident.
Five Teamsters members were charged in September with extortion in that case, for allegedly disrupting the show’s filming — by chest-bumping crew members and slashing their tires — at the Steel & Rye restaurant in Milton.
The Teamsters members have pleaded not guilty, and their lawyers have sought to have the case dismissed, saying they were engaged in lawful picketing. The AFL-CIO of Massachusetts also filed a motion to dismiss the case, saying it would have a chilling effect on unions’ rights to protest. Those motions are pending.
While the indictment alluded to alleged strong-arming of the “Top Chef” production, Brissette was charged only with the alleged extortion of Boston Calling.
The federal indictment released Thursday alleges, however, that two government officials warned Brissette not to withhold “Top Chef” permits over union issues.
Brissette spoke separately in June 2014 with the city’s chief of operations — a post held at the time by former Walsh campaign field director Joseph Rull — and with the director of the Massachusetts State Film Office, the indictment stated.
“The chief of operations told Brissette, after Brissette stated he had pulled the permits, that Brissette could not do so because it was not legal,” the indictment says. Also, the state film director told Brissette the city could not discriminate against nonunion productions.
Despite those warnings, Brissette in August 2014 told a representative from a company shooting a promotion for “Top Chef” that “in order to have success in the permitting process there had to be a union contract,” the indictment states.
A review of the “Top Chef” allegations, performed for the city by attorney Brian Kelly, a former federal prosecutor, found no evidence that Brissette conspired with union members, though it found a concerted effort to maintain relationships with the union.
Kelly acknowledged his review was limited, however: Production crew members and union members would not cooperate with his investigation, and he did not have subpoena power. The city has also hired Kelly to review the Boston Calling allegations.
“Attorney Kelly . . . is conducting a comprehensive review of the Office of Tourism, Sports, and Entertainment to ensure that the proper policies and procedures are in place,” said Laura Oggeri, chief communications officer for the city of Boston, in a statement Thursday.
On Thursday, Kelly said Boston Calling’s organizers declined to speak with him, and that “it’s going to be up to a federal jury to decide what really happened here.”
Walsh’s stature as a labor leader helped fuel his 2013 election as Boston’s first new mayor in a generation. Unions from across the country spent millions on his campaign. His family has deep ties to Laborers Local 223.
While serving as a state representative, Walsh ascended to a role as leader of the Boston Building Trades, an influential position representing laborers, electricians, Teamsters, and others in Greater Boston from Reading to Walpole.
The Globe reported in April that federal authorities were also investigating Walsh’s time as a labor leader. Walsh became drawn into the probe through wiretaps on which he was recorded in 2012 saying he had told a development company it would face permitting problems on a planned Boston high-rise unless it used union labor at another project in Somerville, the Globe has reported.
A search of Globe archives suggests the last high-profile public corruption case linked to a Boston mayoral administration came in 1996, when federal charges were filed against Joseph Fisher for accepting illegal gifts while he worked as an advisor to Mayor Ray Flynn.