In early 2014, the city’s head of tourism was so concerned that he let Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh unknowingly appear on the set of the non-unionized reality show “Top Chef” that he considered pulling its filming permits, a former City Hall official testified Thursday at the Boston Calling extortion trial.
“I [messed] up,” said Ken Brissette, who was new to the job when Walsh appeared at the “Top Chef” filming at the Museum of Science in May, Joe Rull, the city’s former chief of operations, testified. Brissette, who helped coordinate the filming, was unaware that Teamsters had been protesting the non-union production.
Rull said that Brissette seemed ashamed and told him he was “going to try and fix it,” by pulling the show’s footage or withholding its permits. Rull was testifying under an immunity agreement that protected him from prosecution.
“You can’t do that, it’s not legal,” Rull said he told Brissette.
“Good luck with that,” Rull quipped.
Rull’s testimony showed that the fledgling Walsh administration was keenly interested in preserving the mayor’s reputation as a staunch union supporter, only months after Walsh had been elected mayor with widespread support from labor groups. In 2015, a review found that city officials had embarked on a concerted effort to preserve the administration’s relationship with the labor union, and that Walsh had not wanted “Top Chef” to air footage of him.
But federal prosecutors hoped Rull’s testimony Thursday would show jurors that Brissette knew he couldn’t withhold city permits for private events when he allegedly pressured organizers of the popular Boston Calling music festival into hiring union stagehands on the eve of the September 2014 concert on City Hall Plaza.
Both Brissette and Tim Sullivan, the city’s head of intergovernmental affairs, are accused of bullying Crash Line Productions, the Boston Calling promoter, by threatening to withhold city permits unless they complied with their demands.
Defense attorneys have argued that there was no such threat, suggesting that concert promoters and city officials both wanted to avoid an embarrassing protest by the union, which had threatened to picket the festival with a large, inflatable rat on City Hall Plaza. They have accused prosecutors of seeking to criminalize ordinary City Hall politics by calling it extortion.
Rull testified that Sullivan, a former labor leader before he joined the Walsh administration, approached him in the spring and early summer of 2014 to request a meeting with him and union members who had been complaining about Crash Line’s non-union concert production. The threat of a union demonstration came up during the meeting, he said.
“With my knowledge, with unions and picket lines, there is typically a rat that goes with the picket line,” Rull said.
Rull said he told Sullivan to seek an agreement between the union and the concert organizers. Prosecutors have alleged that Sullivan and Brissette pressured Crash Line to help Walsh politically but Rull told jurors that he made clear to Sullivan that “the mayor wants the show to go on, it basically is what it is.”
“The show is going on,” Rull testified. “The mayor is the boss, the show goes on.”
Rull’s testimony came a day after Joyce Linehan, Walsh’s chief of policy, told jurors that Crash Line had complained to her in the weeks before the September festival that it was being pressured to hire union workers, and that she relayed to Walsh that the last-minute financial burden was unreasonable.
Linehan told jurors she did not know whether Walsh read her communications to him. Walsh has not disclosed whether he knew about the conflict between Crash Line and the union, but Rull’s testimony suggested he had been made aware several months before the concert.
Separately Thursday, the head of the non-union production company that did the stagehand work for Crash Line testified that concert organizers were mad over being pressured into hiring union workers but felt they had no other option: They seemed worried the city would withhold alcohol permits.
Bill Kenney, head of Bill Kenney Productions, said more than 50 of his non-union employees had already began setting up the stage in late August when he was approached by concert organizers and told of the change.
“You’re under contract with my company . . . I’d advise you, you don’t have to do that,” Kenny said he told the organizers.
“We just have to play nice in the sandbox . . . so we can have a smooth event,” they replied.
He said he told organizers Brian Appel and Mike Snow that they should complain to the city: He had set up concerts on City Hall Plaza without union workers before.
But, he added, “I did it during the [Mayor Thomas] Menino era, and I didn’t know if anything was subject to change.”
Snow is slated to testify on Friday, and prosecutors could then rest their case. After nearly two weeks of testimony, 16 witnesses have taken the stand.