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Advocacy, negotiation, or criminal activity? Guilty verdicts blur line at City Hall

Kenneth Brissette (left) and Timothy Sullivan resigned after being found guilty of extortion this week.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

They’re the unwritten rules for building in Boston : Hire union. Woo the neighbors. Appease advocates, and pony up cash for “community benefits” like parks or bike lanes or even a church roof. That’s how business with the city gets done.

But some of those rules — and the subtle ways they’re enforced — could be upended following this week’s convictions of two top City Hall aides in federal court on charges that they pressured a music festival organizer into hiring union stagehands.

The unexpected verdicts, and the indictments that preceded them, have blurred an already fuzzy line between negotiation and criminal activity, say lawyers, community advocates, and others who routinely do business with City Hall. Now, some say, federal prosecutors have sent a message that could stifle the give-and-take of city politics.


“It’s like trying to kill a fly with a sledgehammer,” said Mark Erlich, former head of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters. “If advocacy is criminalized, I think we’re in big trouble.”

In court, former city tourism chief Kenneth Brissette and head of intergovernmental affairs Timothy Sullivan said they were acting in their official capacity, and received no personal payment, when they encouraged promoters of the Boston Calling music festival in 2014 to hire union stagehands. Prosecutors argued they were carrying out Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s political agenda by encouraging the union work. On Wednesday, 12 jurors handed out the guilty verdicts after six hours of deliberations.

The original allegations date back to a few months after Walsh was first elected with widespread union support — a time when federal prosecutors were probing concerns of union strong-arming on projects scattered throughout Greater Boston.

Prosecutors were likely drawn to Brissette and Sullivan because of the potential connection between the unions and possible political corruption, said Robert Fisher, an attorney with Nixon Peabody and a former federal prosecutor.


“The feds have always been attuned to potential strong-arm tactics,” he said. “And when you couple that with public officials who are doing it on their behalf or advocating for them, that’s when you get close to the line.”

But community advocates and city government observers said the case has brought into question the essence of what they do, advocacy they’ve long considered to be constituent services by city officials.

“This definitely makes things more confusing — what’s advocacy, and what are you going to jail for?” said first-term Councilor Lydia Edwards, who notes that her support for unions featured heavily in her campaign. “I regularly advocate for my community, most of my colleagues do.”

That means encouraging hospitals to reach agreements with striking nurses, she said, and pushing developers to hire union builders. On a big real estate project such as the redevelopment of Suffolk Downs, it means pushing for more affordable housing, job training, and other benefits that help her constituents.

Edwards said she recognizes each individual case has its own characteristics that may attract the attention of prosecutors, but she said she was most troubled by the point that neither Brissette nor Sullivan received any personal payoff.

“Not dinner, not coffee, and that’s what, as a lawyer or a politician, as an advocate, I can’t understand,” she said. “How much can the city of Boston get involved in business? That’s the question.”

It’s one that often plays out on big real estate projects, where city officials and the Boston Planning & Development Agency have enormous sway.


Developers have long grumbled — privately, for the most part — that building trades unions have a near lock on large construction projects in the city, something they say drives up the cost of housing and office space.

Some point to labor’s longstanding influence in City Hall — union officials, including Erlich, sit on two key city zoning and development boards — and Walsh himself led the regional Building Trades Council before running for mayor. These observers, who asked not to be named, suggest the Boston Planning & Development Agency quietly mandates union work.

But others point out that unions’ grip on Boston’s building scene has actually loosened a bit since Walsh took office. They say it’s partly a function of the busy real estate market and labor’s influence derives more from its fierce public advocacy than anything city officials demand behind closed doors.

“For a long time now, I think the BPDA has been careful to distinguish between informing you of the benefits of building union, as opposed to telling you it’s required,” said Matt Kiefer, a veteran development attorney at Goulston & Storrs. “I’ve never had the experience of someone telling me it’s required.”

Defense attorneys said Brissette and Sullivan never threatened the concert organizers, but prosecutors said the requirement was insinuated.

There are also the often-delicate negotiations around things that are not, strictly speaking, related to zoning. As part of their planning agency approval, most big projects agree to a menu of “community benefits” — parks funding, job training programs, grants for local nonprofits — that are sometimes only loosely tied to the project itself.


It’s a way for the city to pay for needed priorities and for developers to make friends with their future neighbors, said David Begelfer, longtime former head of commercial real estate trade group NAIOP Massachusetts. Often, they’re a “win-win,” he said.

“But it gets out of hand when people start coming for things that have nothing to do with the project. Like ‘Oh, we could really use a new firetruck,’ ” he said. “You need to watch out for those.”

And while neighborhood advocates are often in the middle of those negotiations, some agree they could be more transparent. Steve Fox, president of the South End Forum, has served on a number of neighborhood committees that advise the planning agency on projects. And he’s received a lot of phone calls from nonprofits and other groups looking for a piece of the benefits pie.

“It becomes a kind of who-do-you-know system,” he said. “Quite honestly it’s terrifying. How do you make those decisions?”

That’s a fuzzy line that needs to be made clearer, said Lawrence DiCara, a former city councilor who is now a real estate lawyer. The day-to-day business of City Hall involves a lot of these negotiations, and people should be able to know where they stand.

“There needs to be guidelines,” he said. “You’d hate for someone else to be put through this just because they thought they were doing their job.”


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at Milton.Valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MiltonValencia. Tim Logan can be reached at timothy.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bytimlogan.