Boston Officials Indicted for Extortion on Behalf of IATSE Local

Local government officials can be very creative when it comes to coaxing contractors to hire union labor. And their methods aren’t necessarily legal. On May 17, Kenneth Brissette, director of tourism, sports and entertainment for the City of Boston, was indicted by a federal grand jury for extortion; two days later he was arrested. And on June 29, Brissette, along with Timothy Sullivan, City chief of staff for intergovernmental affairs, received superseding indictments. The defendants allegedly had required a concert promoter a couple of years ago that it would have to hire workers from International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 11 in order to receive the necessary permits for a three-day festival on City Hall Plaza. The indictments follow a joint probe by the FBI and the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General.

The saga consists of two related storylines. In the summer of 2014, a music festival was scheduled at City Hall Plaza in downtown Boston for September. A production company, cited in court records as “Company A,” already had filed for operating permits. The firm had a good reputation. Twice a year it had staged such festivals. Like all event sponsors on City property, it had to receive operating permits. This company was nonunion; it had no collective bargaining agreement in force. IATSE Local 11, which represents over 200 employees, was not pleased. But the union had a friend at City Hall, Kenneth Brissette, who might fix this problem. On more than one occasion, Brissette advised Company A that it had to hire union labor if it wanted permit approval. The company responded that this would not be possible because it already had entered into a contract with a nonunion firm.

The prosecution may well use as evidence a separate case. In January 2014, a new administration, headed by Mayor Marty Walsh, took over City Hall. That meant a batch of new employees. Kenneth Brissette was one of them. That spring, a nonunion firm indicated as “Company B” began scouting for locations to produce a Boston-based reality TV show. As with Company A, it had to apply for and receive City permits. In May, having obtained the necessary permits, Company B began filming at selected locations in the city, including Fenway Park and the Museum of Science. The company also had received approval for shoots elsewhere such as the Omni Parker House Hotel. Brissette was determined to block the show because it involved no union labor. On June 5, he learned from a location scout that a union local was angry about the absence of unionized vehicle drivers. The next day, June 6, he emailed the scout that the permits would not be released until union people were hired. He also advised Company B to make a deal. Soon after, Company B agreed to meet with union representatives and Brissette allowed the scout to release the permits. But Brissette wasn’t completely satisfied. He contacted owners of certain properties where filming was set to begin. The pro-union owners in turn told Company B to do its filming elsewhere.

Brissette grew increasingly brazen. Later that June, he spoke separately with the chief of operations for the City of Boston and the director of the Massachusetts State Film Office, telling each that he had pulled the permits. The officials were nonplussed. Each told Brissette that this was illegal. The awarding of a permit, they emphasized, doesn’t depend on whether workers belong to a union. In August, a representative from a business shooting a promotion for Company B, known as “Company C,” put on a presentation before the City special events committee over which Brissette presided. Despite earlier warnings from a city and a state official, Brissette interrupted the presentation and took a representative from Company C into a private meeting where he said filming would have to be “in a union environment.” Permit grants depended on establishing a union agreement.

Having thrown his weight around with Companies B and C, Brissette figured he could do likewise with Company A. The music festival date was approaching. Between July and September of 2014, Brissette and another city employee, Timothy Sullivan, told representatives of the firm that at least half of all workers must belong to IATSE Local 11. Brissette and Sullivan relented somewhat, lowering their demand to eight union laborers and a union foreman. On September 2, three days before the event, Company A signed a contract agreeing to this requirement. Shortly thereafter, the permits arrived.

The details of dealings with Companies A, B and C might seem a bit overwhelming, but the facts suggest the conclusion that two Boston officials ran an extortion service on behalf of a labor union. That’s what produced the indictments. Even in a non-Right to Work state like Massachusetts, a local government can’t withhold operating permits from a business enterprise unless it signs a union contract. Looking at the larger picture, the saga is understandable. Mayor Marty Walsh is a longtime union man. Until his election in November 2013, he was president of Laborers Local 223. For several years he also served as secretary-treasurer of the Boston Metropolitan District Building Trades Council (AFL-CIO) and head of a union advocacy group, Boston Building Trades. Given recent events, he and top staffers are likely to be more careful in vetting job applicants.