Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston could be called to testify in the City Hall corruption trial that began Monday, dragging him into a politically charged case that has dogged his administration for more than five years.
Walsh’s name was among dozens of potential witnesses read to a federal jury Monday, an indication that either prosecutors or defense lawyers could call him to the stand in the extortion case against two of his top aides.
If Walsh were to testify, it would be the first time a sitting mayor in Boston has testified in a criminal trial in nearly 100 years.
The trial could show how aggressively city officials lobbied for union jobs under Walsh, a former labor leader who was twice elected with overwhelming support from unions. In 2014, his administration came under FBI scrutiny for its relationship with organized labor, and the aides, Timothy Sullivan and Kenneth Brissette, are accused of threatening to withhold lucrative permits from the Boston Calling music festival in 2014 unless the organizers hired union members.
The promoter had already hosted the concert multiple times with nonunion workers, but in 2014 hired eight stagehands and a foreman from a stage employees union.
Walsh has insisted he never ordered anyone to withhold permits to force the use of union labor. He has refused to say whether he was ever called to testify before a grand jury in the case.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for Walsh said he “understands that he is on the witness list but he does not yet know if he will be asked to testify.”
“While he obviously has strong feelings about this, he has decided that it’s not the appropriate time for him to interject while the legal process is ongoing,” said Laura Oggeri.
On Monday, US District Judge Leo T. Sorokin told jurors that Walsh and several other high-profile city leaders who were named, including William Evans, a former Boston police commissioner, were people “who will testify in this trial or about who you might hear testimony.”
Sullivan and Brissette were indicted in 2016 and were suspended with pay for nearly two years until Sorokin dismissed the case in March 2018.
The judge initially ruled that to prove extortion, prosecutors needed to show Sullivan and Brissette personally benefited from securing the jobs. Prosecutors acknowledged they did not have such evidence but they appealed the dismissal, arguing Sorokin’s definition of extortion was too narrow.
In March, the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of prosecutors, giving new life to the case and renewing the headache for Walsh and his administration.
“It’s potentially a very big deal that the mayor might testify,” said David Lurie, a Boston lawyer who has followed the case closely. “He might be asked what his administration’s policy was on requiring applicants for licensing of public spaces such as Boston Calling to hire union workers, whether he reprimanded Brissette or Sullivan for their alleged actions on Boston Calling, and whether they benefited in any way from those actions. . . . All these questions could put the mayor in an uncomfortable position.”
The last time a sitting mayor testified at a criminal trial was June 1924, when Mayor James Michael Curley was called by Middlesex prosecutors to testify against two lawyers, Daniel H. Coakley and William J. Corcoran, the county’s former district attorney. Coincidentally, both men were charged with conspiracy after they were accused of shaking down movie executives who had gone to a scandalous party filled with booze and underage girls at a Woburn roadhouse that became known as the Mishawum Manor affair.
Coakley was accused of telling the executives he could help make sure the scandal wouldn’t result in charges by then-Middlesex District Attorney Nathan A. Tufts. Curley was called to testify about his role in arranging the initial meeting between Coakley and one of the executives.
Coakley and Corcoran were both acquitted following 25 hours of deliberations.
Today, Brissette, the city’s tourism director, and Sullivan, who is head of intergovernmental affairs, are charged with conspiracy to commit extortion and extortion under the Hobbs Act, the federal law that defines the crime.
The list of potential witnesses was read during jury selection, when prospective jurors were asked if they had any kind of relationship with Walsh or the other estimated 40 people who could be called to the stand for what is expected to be a two-week trial.
By late afternoon, a student, a retired Navy veteran, and a marketing director at Dunkin’ Donuts were among the nine women and six men picked to serve on the jury.
It is unclear that Walsh’s reputation will suffer if he is called to the stand, said Jim Vrabel, a Boston historian and author of “The People’s History of the New Boston.”
“The issue is so tenuous and so abstract I don’t think you can generate much significance in it,” he said. “It pales in comparison to different cases in the past.”
Vrabel pointed to political and financial scandals that shook City Hall well after the administration of Curley, who was famously corrupt.
“This isn’t like that,” Vrabel said. “It’s not only not clear that anybody did anything wrong, it’s not even clear that they weren’t doing something right.”
The defense has argued that even if prosecutors could prove that Brissette and Sullivan strong-armed Boston Calling into hiring union labor, the act was not extortion because the outcome was inevitably the right one for the city’s constituents: needed work for good wages and benefits.
The argument echoes the misgivings the appeals court laid out in its opinion, which stated it was aware “of the concerns expressed by the Supreme Court that an overly broad application of the Hobbs Act could unduly chill official conduct.”
But Jeffrey M. Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University, said the public may not see such actions as advocacy.
“I think that Mayor Walsh has done a pretty good job of convincing the public that City Hall is open to everyone,” he said. “That image will take a hit if he is shown to be in any way connected to the efforts of his two aides to ensure union contracts.”