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How high up does the alleged criminal activity go? How deep might it be? Questions that have not been asked in Boston for a very long time are being asked today.

When they reach into City Hall, that’s what federal indictments do.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he’s “deeply concerned” over news that an aide was arrested for “union-related extortion.” As he should be.

The arrest of Kenneth Brissette, the city’s director of tourism, sports and entertainment, turns weeks of rumor, speculation, and leaks into unpleasant reality. Brissette, who was put on paid administrative leave, said the charges are “factually and legally flawed” and he will fight them and prevail. Unfortunately for Walsh, the charges against Brissette hit the mayor’s political soft spot — unions. Organized labor helped elect Walsh. But to the non-labor world, the connection was always suspect. It raised concerns that this mayor would give away the city to the unions he once represented as head of the Building Trades Council.

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Innocent until proven guilty and all that — but in an eight-page indictment, federal authorities charge that Brissette withheld city permits until a music festival hired union stagehands. While the indictment doesn’t identify the music festival, the Globe reported that federal authorities were investigating whether Brissette had pressured organizers of Boston Calling. According to the indictment, Brissette demanded that festival operators hire members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Local 11. No permits were issued until they did.

It has been at least 20 years since the word “indictment” was connected to an associate of a Boston mayor. In 1996, Joseph Fisher, an aide to Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn, was charged with taking $51,000 in illegal gifts from contractors. At the time of the charges, Flynn was no longer mayor, having resigned in 1993 to become US ambassador to the Vatican. Fisher pled guilty and was ultimately sentenced to 14 months in federal prison for not reporting gratuities on his federal taxes. The allegation surfaced during a federal-state probe of Flynn’s campaign finances, and Flynn was fined for violating campaign record-keeping laws.

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Before that, the administration of Mayor Kevin H. White was the target of a serious, decade-long federal investigation into an alleged skein of corruption, which led to convictions of more than a dozen assorted city hall employees. White was never indicted, but the endless investigation sapped his energy, derailed his agenda, and ultimately persuaded him to leave office after four terms.

That’s was federal investigations do. They chip away at morale. They drain political capital. Playing offense is hard when a mayor is always playing defense.

And so it begins for Walsh. In the statement issued after Brissette’s arrest, the mayor described him as “a good and hardworking person.” To that, he added: “Everyone in my administration should know that there is only one way to do things and that is the right way.”

With that first statement, Walsh walks a careful line. Because with a potential 20-year prison sentence attached to a conviction, Brissette has every reason to think long and hard about what he allegedly did and at whose alleged behest.

That’s what federal investigations also do. They create doubt. They spread fear. They beget more rumor, speculation and leaks.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.