Well, that was two years of nothing.
I refer, of course, to the long-awaited City Hall corruption trial that will not be starting today in US District Court. All charges against city officials Ken Brissette and Tim Sullivan have been dismissed, and the mayor has said they will be returning to work imminently.
Brissette and Sullivan were indicted for extortion two years ago, for allegedly leaning on the promoters of the Boston Calling music festival to hire union labor. For a time, the case appeared to be part of a broader investigation into union activity, though the bigger case never materialized.
It all fell apart last week when it became clear that the federal government could not meet the burden of proof set by US District Judge Leo T. Sorokin. Specifically, he was going to instruct the jury that the defendants had to receive something of value to be guilty of violating the Hobbs Act, and neither Sullivan or Brissette ever got anything for themselves. In plain English, the judge rejected the government’s interpretation of the relevant law as overly broad.
The supporters of Sullivan and Brissette — and there are many in city government — understandably view this as vindication. They see it as proof that even if some lines were crossed, nothing happened that remotely justified federal prosecution.
It’s probably safe to count Mayor Martin J. Walsh among the relieved, as well. Though never implicated in the case, he couldn’t have been looking forward to a trial of two subordinates. After all, whatever they did was on his behalf, even though there has never been any hint that they were acting on his orders.
I’ve long had mixed feelings about the case. On one hand, I don’t believe it is appropriate for city officials to push a vendor to hire specific workers, or members of a particular union. On the other hand — and I speak as a layperson here, not a lawyer — the notion that their acts constituted extortion always seemed like a stretch to me.
The question I kept coming back to — the unanswered question — was: What did they get? In other words, can you commit extortion without benefiting personally? The ultimate answer, at least in this case, seems to be no.
The unraveling of this case fits into a broader pattern. Last September, two Teamsters, Joseph Burhoe and John Perry, won a ruling in federal court that they could not be charged with extortion for threatening to picket businesses that did not hire union workers, in a ruling that directly undermined the rationale for this case.
This case is reminiscent too, of the prosecution of former Probation chief John O’Brien whose conviction was overturned partly on grounds that the law had been applied too broadly — again, against a defendant who never benefited personally.
The US Attorney’s office intends to appeal, in an effort to continue to try Sullivan and Brissette. One can only hope the prosecutors come to their senses and walk away. The tremendous power of the federal government — the power to greatly damage the lives of people, even if they are ultimately exonerated — must be used far more judiciously than it was in this case. The abuse of power needs to end immediately.
The real link between this failed prosecution and the O’Brien case is the attempt by the US Attorney’s office to criminalize political conduct it finds offensive. I don’t think Jack O’Brien ran much of a Probation Department, and I don’t think City Hall should try to manage who puts up the stage at a music festival. But none of it was illegal.
This case began as a supposed example of excessive influence-peddling inside City Hall. But it will be remembered instead as an example of federal overreach. Two defendants have paid a painful price for that excess.