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Democracy chilled by campaign against Boston Calling verdict

US Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Andrew Lelling Steven Senne/AP Photo/Associated Press

You know what has a chilling effect on democracy?

Telling concert organizers if they don’t hire union workers they don’t need or want, the City of Boston won’t give them a permit for their event.

That’s what a federal jury found Kenneth Brissette and Timothy Sullivan, two city hall officials, guilty of doing. But in a bizarre twist of logic, some 70 nonprofit organizations, representing environmental, LGBTQ, housing, senior, education, and civil rights advocates, are calling out the verdict as a democracy slayer. Ten Boston city councilors also signed a statement, decrying the case as a “grievous misuse of limited prosecutorial resources in service of a misguided political agenda” and “a terrible precedent.”


Really? I know the current trend of progressive thinking about criminal justice blurs the line between right and wrong in the name of social equity. But choosing not to prosecute petty crimes like shoplifting is at least part of a broader effort to reform a system that treats the accused differently, depending on skin color. Condoning threats from city officials as an acceptable standard for doing business in Boston has nothing to do with addressing racial injustice. In fact, I wonder if two black city officials, convicted of similar crimes, could generate as much institutional support as these two white men.

Brissette and Sullivan were found guilty of conspiracy; Brissette was also found guilty of extortion, for illegally pressuring a concert producer to hire members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union, which supported Mayor Marty Walsh during his first mayoral run. The effort to get a city permit played out during the summer of 2014 — the first year of Walsh’s first term. The concert took place in September 2014. Three days before it took place, concert organizers hired eight union laborers and one foreman, and finally got the permit they needed.


Supporters of Brissette and Sullivan argue that the case criminalizes advocacy. Suggesting that concert organizers hire union help might qualify as simple advocacy. But organizers of the Boston Calling concert were basically told there would be no permit unless they hired union labor. That’s wrong, and Brissette and Sullivan knew it. Joe Rull, the city’s former chief of operations, who testified under a grant of immunity, told the court that when Brissette wanted to employ that hardball tactic during a previous disagreement concerning the use of nonunion production workers he told him, “You can’t do that, it’s not legal.”

There’s also an effort to frame this as a case of prosecutors with a political agenda gone wild. But remember, Brissette and Sullivan were first indicted in 2016, during the tenure of US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz, who was nominated by President Obama. US Attorney Andrew Lelling, a nominee of President Trump’s, carried the case forward. In 2018, the case seemed dead when Judge Leo T. Sorokin said the government must prove the defendants personally benefitted from their actions. But an appeals court judge later said prosecutors didn’t have to meet that standard. Last month, the case went back to trial, with prosecutors arguing that Brissette and Sullivan used their positions as public officials to pressure concert organizers into hiring union labor or “face financial ruin.”


Sorokin stuck with his own interpretation of the law. In his instructions to jurors, he told them, “It is not a wrongful purpose . . . for a public official to assist or favor his constituents or political supporters, or to act in the hopes of securing future political support.” As reported by WGBH, he also said he would not rule out granting a motion by defense attorneys for a “judgment of acquittal” — a ruling that would acquit the defendants regardless of the jury’s verdict.

That’s what’s in play right now. The hope is to convince Sorokin that if he tosses the verdict, he will be praised for courage for standing up to the big, bad, Trump-appointed federal prosecutor. By the way, with the Boston Calling case as well as the prosecution of State Police, Lelling just happens to be leading the charge against public corruption in Massachusetts.

And you know what sets a terrible precedent and really chills democracy?

Trying to derail that effort.

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