Two City Hall aides accused of extortion thought they were advancing Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s agenda in attempting to force the Boston Calling music festival to hire union workers, a prosecutor said in court Thursday.
The prosecutor’s assertion was made as lawyers for City Hall aides Kenneth Brissette and Timothy Sullivan urged a federal judge to dismiss the case, arguing that prosecutors cannot prove that the aides personally benefited from the alleged extortion scheme.
The prosecutors offered no evidence that Walsh knew of the alleged effort to use union labor. Walsh, who was elected in 2013 with wide union support, has denied any union influence over his administration, and has not commented on the Boston Calling case.
In the hearing, prosecutors argued that to prove the extortion case, they are only required to show that the two City Hall aides were working on behalf of the union’s interests when they allegedly threatened to pull Boston Calling’s permits unless the festival organizers hired union workers. But the prosecutors told the judge they would go further, by proving that the aides believed they were working in the mayor’s interest, and their own.
“They benefited, because they perceived they were advancing Mayor Walsh’s agenda and were trying, in a new administration, to advance their own agenda,” Assistant US Attorney Laura Kaplan told US District Judge Leo T. Sorokin during a two-hour hearing Thursday.
The defense motion is based in large part on the argument that Sullivan and Brissette were acting as city workers and were seeking jobs for constituents, and that nothing they did was illegal. Their lawyers also argued that they had the right to negotiate the use of City Hall Plaza.
The lawyers argue that prosecutors have failed to show that the defendants received anything of value for allegedly urging the labor union jobs.
If anything, they argued, prosecutors are trying to criminalize a labor matter.
“A violation of the National Labor Relations Act is not the same as [extortion],” attorney Thomas Kiley argued.
Brissette, the city’s tourism head, and Sullivan, head of governmental affairs, are charged with extortion for allegedly threatening to withhold permits for the Boston Calling festival in September 2014 unless organizers hired union workers.
During Thursday’s hearing, Sorokin pressed Kaplan to show how Brissette and Sullivan committed the federal crime of extortion in seeking union jobs, and asked whether it was simply a general act of coercion.
Prosecutors would have to show that the defendants used the threat of economic harm to force Boston Calling to hire union workers in order to convict them of the crime of Hobbs Act extortion, which is named after the late US Representative Sam Hobbs and is often used to prosecute cases in which strong-arm tactics are alleged.
Kaplan told the judge that Brissette and Sullivan extorted jobs that paid union-scale wages and benefits from a company that did not want and did not need workers. Without the permit, according to court records, the festival organizers could have lost $3 million in revenue, as well as the possibility of future contracts with the city.
Kaplan argued that prosecutors only need to show that Brissette and Sullivan used the threat of withholding permits to benefit a third party — Local 11 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees — and that the prosecutors did not need to show that the aides personally benefited.
“The defendants were agents for the union, standing in their shoes,” Kaplan said, pointing out that Sullivan at one point sent a copy of the union contract to festival organizers.
Kaplan said prosecutors will also show at trial that Brissette and Sullivan had their own interest in seeing the festival hire union workers, believing it would benefit Walsh. The festival had been held in the city without union stagehands three times before the alleged extortion in September 2014. Walsh, a former labor organizer, took office earlier that year.
Sorokin asked whether the aides could be prosecuted if they believed they were supporting constituents: He compared the case to a municipality that wanted a private company to hire city residents under a residency requirement, not knowing that the city may not be able to force such a requirement on a private company.
He questioned whether that act would constitute extortion.
But Assistant US Attorney Kristina Barclay argued that prosecutors were prepared to show during the trial that the defendants knew that what they were doing was wrong.
“There was a general knowledge at City Hall that this is something you could not do,” she said.
Prosecutors allege that Brissette, on at least one other occasion, meddled in a labor dispute involving the “Top Chef” television show that was filming in the area in early 2014, knowing that city officials should not get involved in union business.
He was not charged in that case, though five Teamsters union members were indicted on charges of attempting to extort the show’s production company. One has pleaded guilty.
Sorokin did not say when he would rule on the motion to dismiss the charges against Brissette and Sullivan. A trial date has not been scheduled.