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City Hall corruption case remains in legal, political purgatory

Timothy Sullivan (left) and Kenneth Brissette.
Timothy Sullivan (left) and Kenneth Brissette.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff file photos/Globe Staff file photos

More than four months after two top City Hall aides were found guilty of corruption in federal court, their convictions effectively remain on hold, a legal and political purgatory for them and the Walsh administration as the trial judge reviews what has been a roller coaster of a case.

US District Judge Leo T. Sorokin, who had signaled misgivings about the case when he originally dismissed it, though an appeals court ordered a trial, is weighing whether to vacate the jury’s verdict. Sorokin could also order a new trial for the former aides, Timothy Sullivan and Kenneth Brissette. He has not set a timeline for a decision.

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Meanwhile, support for the defendants appears to be building, with more than $60,000 raised in a “Justice for Tim Sullivan” GoFundMe drive to help pay legal fees for the father of two, with donations coming from city employees and area business people.

Sullivan, the city’s former head of intergovernmental affairs, was convicted in August along with Brissette, the city’s head of tourism, of extortion-related charges for forcing a concert promoter to hire union stagehands.

Their lawyers asked Sorokin to dismiss the verdict and the case or order a new trial, saying the decision represented a “miscarriage of justice.” Such a move is standard procedure for any criminal trial. But Sorokin proactively sought out the motions and has not set a sentencing date, a rarity after a prosecution in federal court.

The delay puts Walsh in a precarious position of waiting out a decision that could support two confidants even as the cloud of their convictions hovers over his administration, according to legal and political analysts.

“No administration wants something like this being held in abeyance — they’d want some finality so that everyone can move on and change the subject,” said Peter Ubertacio, a political science professor at Stonehill College.

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He added, though, that the defendants “have gotten a lot of support, I don’t see that going away. But I’m sure the mayor would prefer, as any mayor would, to get some finality to it. The sooner you can do that, the better.”

Several high-profile figures in the Walsh administration have donated to a fund for Sullivan, including Marty Martinez, chief of health and human services, and Michael Loconto, chairman of the School Committee.

A spokeswoman for Walsh said the mayor has not encouraged anyone to contribute and has not donated himself, though, “city employees have always been free to donate to whatever cause they wish to in their personal capacity.”

City officials have not commented on the case, noting that it is an open court matter. Lawyers for Brissette and Sullivan declined to comment.

The judge’s review is the latest wrinkle in the controversial case, which scrutinized City Hall’s ties to organized labor and tested the limits of advocacy by government officials.

Sullivan and Brissette resigned after their convictions. They initially had been placed on leave after their 2016 indictment, but they were allowed to return to work when Sorokin first dismissed the case in 2018, after prosecutors said they could not proceed under the standards the judge set out for the trial.

Earlier this year, an appeals court in Boston overturned Sorokin’s decision, specifically his outline for jurors to interpret the law, and the case was reinstated.

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Sullivan and Brissette are free on unsecured bond.

The city has since named Kate Davis as director of the mayor’s office of tourism and entertainment and Heather Gasper as head of intergovernmental relations.

The jury had deliberated for only six hours in August, after a two-week trial, before convicting Sullivan and Brissette on charges that they used the power of City Hall to force the promoter for the Boston Calling concert to hire union stagehands for the September 2014 event, even though the promoter had organized the concert with nonunion work in the years before Walsh took office.

Prosecutors had alleged that Sullivan and Brissette were looking to build favor with a union that helped get Walsh elected in 2013.

Defense attorneys had argued that the defendants did nothing illegal, that prosecutors were looking to criminalize the typical give-and-take politics of City Hall. They argued that Brissette and Sullivan could not be convicted of extortion-related charges because they did not personally benefit.

Sorokin has long looked dismissively at the case, and at one point at the close of the trial he had claimed, “I think there are issues of intent and inducement,” according to a published report.

But Sorokin would face a high standard of overturning a jury’s decision as a “miscarriage of justice,” and legal analysts said he probably is looking hard at the evidence in the case, as well as legal interpretations of extortion.

Daniel Medwed, a Northeastern University journalism professor, said that the judge is probably reviewing recent US Supreme Court decisions that have narrowed the scope of public corruption cases that federal prosecutors can pursue. In those decisions, the court has chided prosecutors for going too far to criminalize local politics — one of the criticisms of the prosecution of Brissette and Sullivan.

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Medwed said it will be “intriguing” to see how Sorokin interprets those decisions.

“The stakes are high, because in [the new] case law world in government corruption, and in the ‘quid pro quo’ world, people are waiting to see how local courts are interpreting those decisions,” he said.

Robert Bloom, a Boston College law professor, added that a decision to vacate the jury’s verdict would come under its own scrutiny by the appeals court, and so, if the judge is leaning that way, he will likely want to take time.

“If the appeals court thinks he’s wrong, they can reinstitute the jury verdict,” Bloom said. “But if they think he’s right, then that’s that,” he said. “He’s probably thinking hard about [vacating the decision].”

It would be rare, but not unheard of, for a judge to dismiss a case post-trial, especially after a jury had rendered a guilty verdict. But it has happened.

In June, US District Judge Richard G. Stearns threw out the convictions of two people entangled in the New England Compounding Center case involving tainted pharmaceutical drugs, after they had been convicted by a jury the previous December. The judge questioned the US Food and Drug Administration’s supervisory authority over those specific defendants, because their responsibilities were limited under the larger conspiracy. Prosecutors appealed that decision.

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In that case, Stearns set a sentencing date for the defendants, but then postponed the sentencing. It took six months before he dismissed the case.

And yet, other cases have lingered far longer than the Boston corruption case.

In 2003, US District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock overturned the convictions of two people for violating US export laws after reviewing their trial for more than eight years. He found that the export laws were “unconstitutionally vague.” The appeals court ultimately overturned his decision, however, and both defendants were sentenced in 2005, 10 years after the jury verdicts.


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.