Two top aides to Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh were convicted Wednesday of conspiring to extort organizers of the Boston Calling music festival, a stunning development in a high-profile public corruption case that cast scrutiny on City Hall’s ties to organized labor and tested the limits of advocacy by government officials.
The jury’s swift verdict, reached after only six hours of deliberation, marked a major defeat for Walsh, a former labor leader swept into office by overwhelming union backing.
Kenneth Brissette, the city’s director of tourism, and Timothy Sullivan, chief of intergovernmental affairs, resigned shortly after they were convicted by a jury of eight women and four men of strong-arming the festival into hiring union workers in 2014. Federal prosecutors said they leaned on concert organizers to promote Walsh’s political agenda and exploited the organizers’ fear that city officials might shut down the popular event if they failed to comply.
Brissette, 54, was found guilty of extortion and conspiracy to commit extortion, charges that carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. Sullivan, 39, was convicted of conspiracy to commit extortion but acquitted of extortion.
Massachusetts US Attorney Andrew Lelling said the conviction in the “hard-fought” case — which prosecutors revived even after an early setback — reaffirmed his office’s commitment to pursue cases against public officials.
“Today is a reminder that pursuing a political agenda is one thing but forcing citizens to do your bidding through threats of financial ruin is something else,” Lelling said at a news conference after the verdict, flanked by the trial prosecutors in the case, Kristina Barclay and Laura Kaplan. “This case reaffirms that federal prosecutors play a crucial role in combating public corruption.”
Lawyers for Brissette and Sullivan said they would file a motion to US District Judge Leo T. Sorokin to overturn the jury verdict, a process that could take several weeks and extend a protracted, fitful legal saga that began when the men were indicted in 2016.
Friends and relatives of both men wept after the verdict.
“Obviously I’m disappointed,” Sullivan said to reporters outside the federal courthouse. “It’s been a long ordeal. Obviously glad to have a resolution, not this resolution. We’ll just have to fight a little longer to prove what happened.”
Brissette left the courthouse without speaking to reporters. In a statement, Brissette’s lawyer, William Kettlewell, said he would continue to fight the case.
“Mr. Brissette is grateful to the jury for their service despite being very disappointed with today’s verdict,” Kettlewell said. “He and his legal team . . . remain confident that he will be vindicated.”
Sullivan’s lawyer, Tom Kiley, said defense lawyers have a week to file briefs with Sorokin to overturn the convictions.
“The fight continues,” he said.
Walsh, who was invoked frequently during the two-week trial but did not testify, said he was “surprised and disappointed” by the verdict.
“I have made clear from the beginning that there is only one way to do things in my administration and that is the right way. I have always believed that their hearts were in the right place. We have taken several measures at the City of Boston to ensure that every employee has the right tools and training to perform at the highest ethical standards, which has always been my expectation,” the mayor said in a statement.
The case was considered a long shot for federal prosecutors, who have seen similar extortion cases end in acquittals or overturned convictions.
Brissette’s and Sullivan’s lawyers argued that the aides had no control over the concert’s permits and that prosecutors were criminalizing the ordinary give-and-take of city politics.
Legal specialists considered the prosecution novel, pushing against — or perhaps beyond — the limits of the Hobbs Act, the federal law that defines extortion. The conviction, if ultimately upheld, could have a profound effect on how government officials conduct business with private companies, legal specialists said.
“What is the difference between insisting on union labor and insisting on affordable housing in connection with a development?” said Jack Corrigan, a former Norfolk prosecutor who lectures on prosecuting at Harvard Law School. “Even if you can prosecute this, which clearly they can, should you? Or are you taking what is certainly colorable political activity, public policy activity, and turning it into a crime?”
It took years for the case to reach trial. In March 2018, Sorokin dismissed the charges after prosecutors conceded they could not prove Brissette and Sullivan had personally benefited from the union jobs, the legal standard the judge had established for a conviction.
Prosecutors appealed, and in March 2019 the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Brissette and Sullivan did not have to benefit personally from the jobs to have committed extortion. At the same time, the appeals court said it was not taking a stance on whether the City Hall workers had acted illegally and noted “the concerns expressed by the Supreme Court that an overly broad application of the Hobbs Act could unduly chill official conduct.”
In bringing the case to trial, prosecutors tried a new approach: It was Walsh who would benefit politically if the festival used union labor, and the two City Hall aides were carrying out their boss’s agenda by pressuring organizers to hire union workers.
In his instructions to the jurors, Sorokin said they could reach a guilty verdict only if they concluded that Brissette and Sullivan “knowingly and willfully obtained” the benefits of the union jobs, that their actions affected the company’s ability to sell tickets or satisfy its investors, that they used the company’s fear of economic harm to obtain the union jobs, and that it was wrong to do so.
“It is not a wrongful purpose . . . for a public official to assist or favor his constituents or political supporters, or to act in the hopes of securing future political support,” Sorokin said.
Given the high bar, the jury’s verdict is shocking, said Jack Cunha, a criminal defense attorney who followed the case.
“The question is ‘Was it a verdict that was decided on emotion rather than the law,’ ” he said.
At trial, Mike Snow, one of the concert promoters, said he “felt he had no choice” but to hire union workers after a Sept. 2, 2014, meeting with Sullivan and Brissette. Although the men never made any explicit threat, Snow said, he came away feeling that the concert was in jeopardy unless he and his partner, Brian Appel, acceded to their demands. Appel declined to comment on Wednesday.
Prosecutors also featured an e-mail that the union’s business agent, Colleen Glynn, sent her members after the promoter, Crash Line Productions, hired the workers.
“I want you all to know we got a ton of help from City Hall,” she wrote that September. “Starting with the top, Mayor Walsh and his staff members . . . these folks fought hard for us because Local #11 fought hard for them.”
Robert Fisher, a former federal prosecutor who handled corruption cases, said prosecutors have had more success with juries than with appellate courts, which have often overturned such convictions.
“I think the public has always truly disliked any hint of public corruption by public officials and that really resonates with a jury,” Fisher said. “The law is complicated . . . and that’s where you have this divergence between the verdicts and the decisions by appellate courts.”