Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

The US attorney goes way overboard

Tim Sullivan left court on July 12.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File

Tim Sullivan left court on July 12.

Tim Sullivan has been on my mind all summer. Sullivan is the former AFL-CIO legislative director who went on to work for Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston — and was indicted in June on extortion and conspiracy charges.

I’m not a social friend of Sullivan, but I’ve known him for years professionally. We jousted many times when I was offering eye-rolling assessments of his former boss, then AFL-CIO chief Bob Haynes, whose self-important bloviation provided me with ample column fodder.

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Yet in the time I’ve known Sullivan, he’s never been anything but honest, civil, and gentlemanly. He was closer to a boy scout than a union tough. So I’ve been hugely bothered that he is under indictment for allegedly pushing a company that produces music festivals to hire union workers as a precondition of getting permits to use City Hall Plaza.

Now, as someone who has periodically earned the ire of organized labor by offering sharp critiques of their competition-limiting tactics, I think that kind of pressure is objectionable, whether it’s the result of informal administration policy or simply the pro-union sympathies of a couple of staffers. And certainly if someone had alleged Sullivan himself had sought a bribe or kickback or personal benefit, I’d agree this should play out in court.

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But let’s keep things in perspective. There is no allegation that Sullivan himself benefited in any way from getting the Boston Calling organizer to hire union workers. Nor is there any allegation that city tourism chief Ken Brissette, who has been indicted on similar charges, sought or received any personal benefit. The only beneficiary here was the union.

So for supposedly telling the festival organizers they needed to hire union members to get their city permits, Sullivan, a 36-year-old family man with a young toddler, has been criminally charged with conspiracy and extortion, punishable by up to 20 years in prison? Because a handful and a half of union guys got unnecessary jobs for a weekend music festival or two?

That strikes me as colossal overkill. Nor am I the only one who feels that way.

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“This is what I call shooting a mouse with a cannon,” says former US attorney Frank McNamara. “Is this really something that rises to the level of a federal offense?” Although McNamara agrees with the US attorney that city permits shouldn’t hinge on hiring union labor, he notes that there are any number of ways short of an indictment to address the matter. “How about a meeting and an agreement not to do this, and some restitution?” he suggests.

“They are indicting someone criminally for conduct that as far as I know has not been criminal,” former state attorney general Tom Reilly told me. “There are other options, and I think better options, to handle this without branding them as criminals and indicting them.”

One would be a consent decree, in which the city would legally commit itself to a specific set of policies regarding the granting of permits and its interaction with unions. Instead, US Attorney Carmen Ortiz and her team have reached for the most powerful weapon in their arsenal.

Former attorney general Frank Bellotti says he refrains from criticizing specific prosecutions, because he doesn’t know all the facts. But then he adds: “My general feeling is that when you have that power to prosecute and indict, once you come down, it doesn’t make any difference whether they are guilty or innocent — they are destroyed.”

For my money, that’s exactly what Ortiz risks doing here: destroying two decent people because of actions that, though they may have been misguided, weren’t corrupt.

But she could still leverage a consent decree and then drop the prosecutions.

And if she doesn’t? Well, as she proceeds, these prosecutions should be viewed with serious concern and skepticism, both by the judge hearing the case and the jury sitting in judgment.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.
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