Stonewalling is not going to work. If Mayor Walsh or other city officials have appeared before a grand jury or received subpoenas in the federal government’s ongoing investigation into labor unions in Boston, they should say so. And they should tell the public whatever was told to jurors. Nothing in the law prevents doing so. Ducking direct questions, as Walsh continued to do on Monday morning, only threatens to turn the federal probe into a distracting issue the city can ill afford.
The Globe revealed Sunday that Walsh had been recorded on a wiretap in 2012, when he was a state representative and senior labor official, saying that he had told a housing developer that the firm would face trouble getting permits for a project in Boston unless it used union labor at a different project in Somerville. Many details of the conversation are unclear, but prosecutors are reportedly looking into whether the demand crossed the line to illegal extortion. The wiretap was apparently not aimed at Walsh but was part of a much larger federal investigation into labor practices in Greater Boston that has already ensnared the Teamsters indicted in the “Top Chef” case.
All of the details related to the Somerville incident occurred before Walsh became mayor. That may not change any legal aspects of the case, but it’s an important distinction politically; voters are fair-minded enough to understand that he has a different job now. The public also knows that testifying to a grand jury — if indeed Walsh did so — is not necessarily a sign of wrongdoing. Although it may be embarrassing to be linked to a criminal probe, Walsh should trust residents to understand those nuances.
What he should not do is follow the route of some labor figures who have attacked the investigation, accusing the feds of criminalizing labor negotiations. The line between extortion and negotiation is not nearly as blurry as they maintain, and the suggestion that the two go hand-in-hand impugns the vast majority of labor officials who manage to do their job without running afoul of the law. Developers, like everyone else, have a right to a fair hearing on city approvals, and nobody can threaten to deprive them of that right to get their way in a private labor dispute.
Walsh was cagey on Monday, insisting he’d done nothing wrong without categorically denying he’d spoken to a grand jury. “If there is an investigation, I’m assuming at some point there will be indictments coming down,’’ the mayor said Monday. “I will not be getting one of those.’’ In explaining why he wouldn’t directly comment on any potential testimony, Walsh’s office cited the integrity of the investigation. But there is no legal restriction on grand jury witnesses discussing their testimony. The city also claimed that because of the federal investigation it couldn’t comply with a Globe public records requests for any communications with the US attorney’s office, but the state supervisor of records shot down that argument Friday. There’s no justification for continuing to use the existence of the investigation as a shield.
Full transparency is particularly important in the context of Boston’s history and reputation for government corruption. The federal investigation also brushes against larger fears about how development works in the city, especially the perception that permits and zoning variances are too opaque and provide fertile ground for influence-peddling and favoritism. The platonic ideal of a city permit — something that should be available to everyone who meets clearly defined legal requirements — does not line up with the perception of many Bostonians of the way city government works. Fairly or not, Walsh the labor leader is now tied into an image that Walsh the mayor has to contend with.
The best way to move forward is simply to level with the public. For Walsh, pulling back the curtain on his own activities, including anything he might have told a grand jury, would help put the matter to rest. The rest of his administration should do likewise.