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Prosecutors push forward with Boston Calling case

Timothy Sullivan (left) and Kenneth Brissette were accused of threatening to withhold city permits for the Boston Calling music festival in 2014.
Timothy Sullivan (left) and Kenneth Brissette were accused of threatening to withhold city permits for the Boston Calling music festival in 2014.(PAT GREENHOUSE/GLOBE STAFF/FILE)

In a case that once seemed all but dead, federal prosecutors on Friday signaled they will prepare for a trial on public corruption charges against two Boston City Hall aides.

The prosecutors have requested that the court set a trial date of June 17. Attorneys for Kenneth Brissette and Timothy Sullivan, the two city hall aides, asked that the court move the trial to July 15 or later.

Legal observers say prosecutors will have to prove a complex case involving interpretations of the federal law that defines extortion, but they note it is nonetheless significant that they plan to pursue a trial.

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Martin G. Weinberg, a Boston criminal defense attorney not connected to the case, said the prosecution “will challenge the outer limits of the Hobbs Act.”

“It’s either at or outside the boundaries of extortion precedent,” he said.

Brissette and Sullivan are charged with extortion stemming from work for the Boston Calling music festival in 2014. The government says they allegedly threatened to withhold city permits for the festival unless organizers hired union stagehands.

Both men deny the charges. The case prompted debate about the proper limits of government lobbying and brought scrutiny of Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s ties to labor. Brissette and Sullivan are currently working in their City Hall capacities. Walsh’s office declined to comment on Friday’s filing.

Lawyers for Brissette and Sullivan had successfully argued before US District Judge Leo T. Sorokin that the Hobbs Act did not apply to the case against them. Sorokin ruled in 2018 that in order to win a conviction, prosecutors would need to prove that the defendants personally benefited from the hiring of union workers.

At the time, prosecutors conceded they lacked the evidence to reach that legal standard and did not oppose a defense motion to dismiss the case.

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But in March, a federal appeals court vacated the dismissal of the extortion charges in the Boston Calling case. The court held that a judge misinterpreted the law, a ruling that paved the way for prosecutors to bring the matter to trial.

The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that federal prosecutors do not have to prove that Brissette, Walsh’s head of tourism, and Sullivan, head of intergovernmental affairs, personally benefited from the hiring of union workers at the festival.

In the immediate aftermath of the appeals court ruling, US Attorney Andrew Lelling’s office did not say whether it would bring the case to trial again.

The filing on Friday marked the first time that Lelling’s office signaled it would pursue a trial.

In asking for the trial date to be moved to July, the defense attorneys wrote, “This will allow the parties sufficient time to notify third-party witnesses and be fully prepared for trial.”

When they returned to work after the case was initially dismissed, Walsh, a former labor organizer, welcomed back both men and insisted that his administration did not pressure vendors or contractors to hire union members.

“We’ve never insisted that anybody who works on City Hall Plaza bring union or nonunion on the plaza, we’ve never done that,” he told the Globe shortly after the dismissal, referring to the Boston Calling event, which was staged on the plaza.

Messages left with attorneys representing Brissette and Sullivan were not immediately returned Friday evening.

In the indictment, prosecutors alleged that the concert organizer, Crash Line Productions, was harmed by the demand because it ultimately hired eight union laborers and one foreman, even though it had already retained a nonunion company to perform the work.

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The next stage of the case could turn on what benefit, if any, the two aides allegedly received.

In the ruling that initially stalled the case, Sorokin had said jurors would need to conclude that Brissette and Sullivan “obtained property” from the festival organizers or directed the company to give property — the wages and benefits from the jobs — to a family member, a group the defendants belonged to, or an organization or person to whom they were indebted.

But the appeals court vacated that ruling this year and remanded the matter “for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

Weinberg, the Boston attorney not affiliated with the case, said the appeal resolved only one of the legal issues in the case, not all of them.

“What remains is, again, a novel and aggressive use of the extortion statute,” he said.

Rosanna Cavallaro, a law professor at Suffolk University, said prosecutors “took the trouble to appeal and get the First Circuit to indicate that their theory as to why this was a violation was correct.”

“Getting that appellate ruling just to say, ‘Hey we were right, good for us,’ is not really how you would use resources if you’re the US attorney,” she said.

Still, it is not a foregone conclusion that a jury “would agree with the government that this constitutes extortion,” Cavallaro said.

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There will be questions of fact, and whatever instructions a jury receives will probably be complex, she added.

The dispute that brought the case to the First Circuit makes it clear that this was not a garden-variety criminal case, said Cavallaro.

“It’s complex, it’s subtle,” she said. “Those complexities and subtleties are not what we think of when we think of jury strengths.”


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.