I’m not sure I’d want to be US Attorney Andrew Lelling, faced with making the call on whether to pursue the suddenly resurrected public corruption case against two City Hall aides.
Like me, you had probably forgotten there was anything left of the matter in which aides Ken Brissette and Tim Sullivan were charged with extortion. The case stemmed from the Boston Calling music festival in 2014; Brissette and Sullivan were accused of strong-arming the show’s promoters to provide unnecessary union jobs for supporters of Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
The case was dismissed by a federal judge last year following a ruling that prosecutors would have had to prove that Sullivan and Brissette personally benefited from the alleged extortion. But that decision was overturned last week when an appeals court ruled that prosecutors wouldn’t have to meet that standard for conviction.
Brissette and Sullivan — who were never off the city payroll and who both returned to work after the case was dropped — again face the prospect of going on trial. So now it’s up to the federal prosecutor to decide whether to pursue the case.
Which I hope the government won’t.
Before I get to why this case has always bothered me, let me say that I believe that the defendants behaved badly. The central allegation of the case — that city government muscle was used improperly to secure union work, albeit for a single weekend — has always been easy for me to believe.
Whether it rises to the level of federal crime, though, is a different question. While the case is now free to proceed, Lelling will have to weigh his chances of winning convictions in the type of case that judges and juries have recently rejected as murky.
The Jack O’Brien case will surely give him pause. The former Probation Department chief was convicted (along with two subordinates) after he allegedly turned a vital state agency into an unfettered patronage mill. Yet despite that accusation doing more damage to the public trust than what Brissette and Sullivan are accused of, O’Brien’s conviction was ultimately overturned — largely because he never received anything of personal value.
The “Top Chef” case is a disturbing parallel, too: Members of Teamsters Local 25 were indicted for thuggishly shaking down the show’s producers for jobs when the popular cable TV show was shooting in and around Boston. The bad behavior was thoroughly documented, but a jury didn’t see it as criminal, and all the defendants were acquitted.
Which brings us to Brissette and Sullivan.
They were absolute lunkheads — in particular Brissette, who, court filings indicate, was much more deeply implicated in this asinine scheme. Both men had been warned by other officials in city and state government that their behavior was improper, and quite possibly illegal. Yet they continued to wield their limited, middle-management influence. It was ridiculous.
But was it really extortion? And was it really worth sending someone to prison? On those questions, I’d say no.
Prosecutors, especially federal prosecutors, often say cases like these are important to prosecute because they deter others who might be considering similar activity. In this case, I suspect that message has been sent loud and clear by the investigation and indictments in this case. I don’t see the public benefit in a trial, years after the fact, that the government could very well lose. If the “Top Chef” Teamsters can walk, it’s entirely possible that Sullivan and Brissette could walk.
What this case really calls out for is a public reckoning with the misconduct that produced it, whether it violated federal law or not. I’d like to see Mayor Walsh — who has loyally stood by his men throughout — acknowledge that their behavior was wrong, which he has never done.
The fact is, there was plenty of wrongdoing here. Somehow, that’s gotten completely lost.
Brissette and Sullivan don’t belong in prison. But they don’t belong in City Hall, either.Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @adrian_walker.