Boston City Officials Convicted of Extortion on Behalf of Stagehands Union

Public agencies shouldn’t be in the business of coercion on behalf of a private-sector union. Apparently, that principle didn’t faze Kenneth Brissette or Timothy Sullivan. On August 7, Brissette and Sullivan, respectively, director of tourism, sports and entertainment and director of intergovernmental affairs for the City of Boston, were convicted of extortion by a jury following a two-week trial in U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts against a concert promoter with the intent of forcing the promoter to hire workers from International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 11. The pair had been hit with superseding indictments in June 2016 following a joint investigation by the FBI and the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General.

The saga has its roots in the summer of 2014. The “Boston Calling” music festival had been scheduled for that September at City Hall Plaza in downtown Boston. An established concert promoter, Crash Line Productions, indicated in charging documents as “Company A,” already had applied for the necessary operating permits and also was seeking an agreement with the City to use the plaza for events beyond 2017. Crash Line was also nonunion. The Boston-based IATSE Local 11, representing more than 200 workers, did not like this. It had been trying continuously since March 2013 to win a contract with the promoter, but without success.

The union, however, had friends in City Hall, especially Kenneth Brissette. On multiple occasions, Brissette advised Crash Line that it had to hire union labor if it wanted its permit applications approved. Company officials replied that this would be impossible because it already had contracted with a nonunion firm to handle all stage props. In a separate case, he tried to impose a similar requirement on a reality-TV production company (“Company B”) seeking to film in Boston, the very company, as Union Corruption Update noted two years ago, whose crew would be violently threatened by Teamster thugs at a suburban Boston restaurant in June 2014. In both instances, Brissette had been informed by a public official that this practice was illegal – that the awarding of a permit does not depend on whether a contractor is union or nonunion.

On September 2, 2014, with the three-day music festival set to begin in just three days, Brissette, along with intergovernmental affairs director Tim Sullivan, coaxed Crash Line into a compromise: Half of the crew’s labor force would be union members. With no time to maneuver, the company agreed to hire nine persons – eight stagehands and a supervisor – from IATSE Local 11. Boston Calling was good to go.

This would not be the end of things. Crash Line complained to the U.S. Department of Labor that it had been pressured into signing a contract against its will. In May 2016, Brissette was indicted by a federal grand jury and arrested for extortion. The following month, he and Sullivan were slapped with superseding indictments under the Hobbs Act, a federal statute enacted in 1946 outlawing extortion or robbery (and the threat of these things) for the purpose of obstructing interstate commerce. The indictments collapsed in court last year when U.S. District Judge Leo Sorokin, in a procedural ruling, said the government had to prove that the defendants personally benefited from their actions. The government admitted it could not meet that bar and dropped its case. Soon after, however, it appealed. And this time it was successful. A federal circuit court ruled that prosecutors did not have to meet Judge Sorokin’s standard. In the retrial, prosecutors pursued the argument that Brissette and Sullivan used their positions as public officials to induce Crash Line Productions to believe that it might face economic ruin if it didn’t cooperate. The jury agreed and delivered a guilty verdict for both men.

There is a crucial subtext here: the possible role of Democratic Mayor Marty Walsh. He is a longtime union man. Until his initial election in 2013, he headed Laborers International Union of North America Local 223, and for several years, served as secretary-treasurer of the Boston Metropolitan District Building Trades Group, an AFL-CIO affiliate. It was he who hired Brissette and Sullivan. This August 7, upon hearing of their convictions, Walsh issued this statement:

I am surprised and disappointed. I have made clear from the beginning that there is only one way to do things in my Administration, and that is the right way. I have always believed that their hearts were in the right place. We have taken several measures at the City of Boston to ensure that every employee has the right tools and training to perform at the highest ethical standards, which has always been my expectation.

There seems to be a bit of fence-sitting here. On one hand, Mayor Walsh clearly stated that the actions of the defendants were unacceptable. On the other hand, by indicating their hearts “were in the right place,” he seemed to express more disappointment in their getting caught than in their conduct itself.

That possibility is now the basis for legal action. Prosecutors during the trial had raised the likelihood that Brissette and Sullivan were acting in accordance with the mayor’s wishes. And yesterday, August 21, attorneys for the pair filed motions for acquittals and new trials. The lawyers claim that the prosecution’s insinuation about Mayor Walsh was false. They also say that the National Labor Relations Act does not prohibit a local government from requiring an organization to employ union labor as a condition for using its property. The Justice Department has until September 4 to challenge the motions.

The defendants have a long road to hoe. The evidence is substantial that they used their offices to threaten a business enterprise with economic harm. Federal officials believe the verdicts are sound. “This afternoon,” said U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling, “a federal jury convicted Kenneth Brissette and Timothy Sullivan of extorting a private business to hire union labor that they did not want or need. Private companies that want to do business in Boston have the right to hire anyone they want – union or not – without fear of being threatened with economic disaster by government officials. That is the law.” Michael Mikulka, Special Agent-in-Charge for the Labor Department’s Office of Inspector General, said: “Today’s convictions affirm the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General’s commitment to protecting the American workers from extortion and unlawful influence.”