In a show of unity with the administration, Boston city councilors joined community activists Wednesday in protest of the federal prosecutions of two former City Hall aides, saying their extortion convictions for pressuring a music festival to hire union members will have a chilling effect on the very advocacy they carry out daily in their jobs.
The late morning news conference outside council chambers occurred hours before defense attorneys for the two aides submitted new court documents asking US District Judge Leo T. Sorokin to vacate the jury’s guilty verdict, by finding as a matter of law that no crime ever occurred.
If the judge won’t vacate the verdict, the lawyers called for a new trial “to rectify the manifest injustice of the verdict in this case.”
“Two innocent men currently stand convicted of a non-existent crime,” the lawyers argued, adding that, “the court should acquit [the aides] — because the government pursued a legal theory in this case that violates fundamental principles of settled constitutional law and representative government and because each defendant is factually and legally innocent of any wrongdoing.”
Two weeks ago, a 12-person jury deliberated for six hours before convicting Ken Brissette, the city’s head of tourism, of extortion and conspiracy, and Tim Sullivan, the head of intergovernmental affairs, of conspiracy. The two men resigned after the verdict; they have not been sentenced.
Prosecutors alleged that in 2014 they improperly pressured organizers of the Boston Calling music festival to hire union stagehands by threatening that the festival could lose lucrative city permits. The prosecutors alleged that Brissette and Sullivan were looking to support the union to preserve Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s political image as a labor-friendly mayor, after he was elected a year earlier with heavy union support.
Councilor Lydia Edwards, who organized Wednesday’s demonstration, said that the prosecutions set a “terrible precedent” for councilors, other government officials, and community activists who advocate every day for better jobs, affordable housing, and other community benefits.
Edwards said the protest was not directed at the jurors. But, she said, she took issue with prosecutors bringing the case to jurors in the first place.
“How people can call what we do on a continuing basis extortion is really a concern,” said Edwards. She said she saw no difference between the accusations against Brissette and Sullivan and other advocacy that takes place in City Hall, and said the case only further blurred the line.
“This is not a law school class; we’re talking about real-life advocacy,” said Edwards, a lawyer by trade, adding that she would not back off the work she was elected to do: “Never will I feel concerned about facing criminal charges or advocating for what is right.”
Edwards was joined in person by councilors Kim Janey, Frank Baker, Josh Zakim, Annissa Essaibi-George, and Ed Flynn. Ten of the councilors signed an open statement Wednesday calling the case a “grievous misuse of limited prosecutorial resources in service of a misguided political agenda.” Councilors Matt O’Malley, Mark Ciommo, and Althea Garrison did not participate.
O’Malley said he could not sign the open statement because he believes councilors can be “good advocates” while adhering to the spirit of the law. He said his decision had no reflection on Sullivan and Brissette, who he said were of “high character and otherwise flawless records” and deserve to be treated as such when they are sentenced.
“It’s our responsibility to be an effective advocate for social inclusion and economic dignity, but we cannot stop living up to the letter and spirit of the law,” he said.
The councilors at Wednesday’s gathering were joined by community advocates who were part of a coalition of more than 70 nonprofit organizations — representing environmental, LGBTQ, housing, senior, education, and civil rights advocates — that published advertisements in local newspapers decrying the verdict and its “chilling effect.”
“This is about curbing our voices, and curbing the ability of government to stand up for us . . . we will not be silenced, and we will continue to fight against this because it’s wrong,” said Jordan Berg Powers, executive director of the Mass Alliance.
US Attorney Andrew Lelling, whose office prosecuted the case, called the councilors’ concerns baseless.
“If the Boston City Council thinks it is appropriate — or legal — to threaten private citizens with economic catastrophe if they don’t do something they’re not legally required to do, well, that strikes me as something the people of Boston might want to know,” he said.
Lelling has defended the prosecution, saying the verdict “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.”
On Wednesday, Mayor Walsh said he recognized that councilors had “a lot of unanswered questions.” He has called the case “disheartening.”
But, he added, “I’m not really focused on that yet, the ramifications. I’m still focused on what the next steps are. . . . There’s still court [proceedings] going on, and I’m going to let it take its course.”
Sorokin, the judge, has not scheduled a sentencing hearing for Brissette and Sullivan, which is unusual given that the jury rendered a verdict. The judge set a filing schedule for lawyers and prosecutors to submit legal arguments over whether the jury had enough evidence of a crime to reach its verdict, and whether he should order a new trial.
Last year, the judge set a legal instruction for jurors so narrow that prosecutors sought the dismissal of the case, saying they could not prove a crime under the judge’s instructions. The prosecutors then successfully appealed Sorokin’s decision to a higher court, which sent the case back for trial.
On Wednesday, defense lawyers argued in legal filings that the trial evidence still failed to show a crime: that Brissette and Sullivan engaged in a conspiracy, that they ever personally benefited from the alleged threats, or that they made any threats at all.
The lawyers argued that they simply requested union labor, to avoid the image of a union demonstration, at the same time that the music festival organizers were seeking better permits for the event.
“By intentionally blurring the lines between legitimate conduct and Hobbs Act extortion in this case, the government has left all interactions between public officials and their constituents open to second guess by the federal government on pain of criminal sanction,” the lawyers argued.