Only two City Hall officials were on trial in federal court, but it was a culture, a way of doing business, that was exposed for all to see. And nothing about it was pretty.
Kenneth Brissette and Timothy Sullivan were both found guilty of conspiracy Wednesday, and Brissette of extortion, for illegally pressuring a concert producer to hire members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union, which was among the mayor’s political supporters in 2013.
The verdict came as a shock to many observers. Indeed, the two defendants have won a lot of sympathizers in the city, who feel they’ve been singled out for punishment for a practice that’s been tolerated with a wink for decades. It took the conscience of a jury to conclude that even if the two men didn’t invent playing favorites with city permits, it’s still wrong.
Now that the jury has done its work, the far broader issue is whether the conduct described in two weeks of testimony represents the kind of government that Boston’s fated to continue suffering from in the future. Or will this verdict finally send the message to every other city official in every other corner of City Hall that the-way-it’s-always-been is no excuse?
Brissette, hired in the spring of 2014 to be the chief of tourism in the Walsh administration, and Sullivan, head of governmental relations, were accused of strong-arming Crash Line Productions into hiring union labor the company neither wanted nor needed for the Boston Calling music festival slated for City Hall Plaza that September.
But the testimony and the paper trail introduced in federal court also drew back the curtain on how business was being done in the then-new Walsh administration.
Shortly after his hiring, Brissette managed to get knee-deep into a controversy over the “Top Chef” filming in Boston, which was being protested by a different union, the Teamsters, for using nonunion production workers.
How Brissette handled that situation was alarming. Testifying under a grant of immunity, former city chief of operations Joe Rull told the court Brissette wanted the film company to cut some footage it had already shot but which now loomed as a source of embarrassment with the mayor’s union supporters. Brissette’s weapon of choice, Rull said, was threatening to withhold the film company’s permits.
“You can’t do that, it’s not legal,” Rull said he told Brissette.
Brissette was never charged in connection with the “Top Chef” allegations. But the exchange with Rull demonstrated that he knew that conditioning city permits on use of union labor was illegal.
By summer, with the days dwindling before the Boston Calling festival, IATSE Local 11 business manager Colleen Glynn messaged Sullivan with a draft agreement for her members to work the event.
“I’m confident we can get a deal for a dozen or so stagehands especially with Mayor’s Walsh’s backing,” she wrote on Aug. 20, 2014.
She was right. And as soon as the festival organizers caved and hired the union workers, just days before the festival, its permitting problems suddenly vanished.
On Sept. 3, Glynn crowed to her members about the nine jobs secured with “a ton of help from City Hall.”
Brissette’s lawyer, Bill Kettlewell, gamely tried to justify the interactions. “It’s not wrong for a public servant to resolve a dispute among constituents,” Kettlewell argued in his closing. “That’s what public servants are supposed to do: bring people to the table.”
But 12 jurors didn’t buy it. “Vigorous advocacy by public officials does not include telling private companies . . . that they must give their wages and benefits to unions or face financial ruin,” as Assistant US Attorney Laura Kaplan said in her closing arguments. “It’s not a legal negotiation when you have a gun to your head,” she added.
Walsh issued a statement saying he was “surprised and disappointed” at the verdict, adding, “I have always believed that their hearts were in the right place.”
Really? Is pandering to this special interest or that political supporter what Bostonians expect from City Hall? And does Walsh’s continued defense of two men a jury has found to be criminals mean that it will be business as usual in the days and years ahead at City Hall?
This verdict is a chance to turn the page on a practice jaded Bostonians have had to accept for so long that it feels normal. The way the city issues permits — to hold festivals, build housing, or anything else — should be easy to navigate, fair to all applicants, and fully transparent. Walsh might not think Wednesday’s verdict was fair to the two defendants, but he should take to heart the verdict the jury delivered on how citizens want government to conduct business.