When two aides to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh were convicted earlier this month on federal charges of conspiring to extort organizers of the Boston Calling music festival in 2014, US Attorney Andrew Lelling touted it as another victory for efforts to root out corruption in government.
But a lot of people don’t see it that way. The case has generated a tremendous amount of blowback from advocates, labor leaders, legal experts, and, last week, most members of the Boston City Council, who say the US attorney’s office has criminalized the usual give-and-take of political advocacy.
“We’re in a different world where advocacy is now considered extortion,” said Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards on this week’s Codcast. She called it a “true concern” and said the convictions have created incredible uncertainty for elected officials and advocates who are accustomed to pushing their causes vigorously, but now wonder whether that could land them in prosecutors’ crosshairs.
The case against Kenneth Brissette and Tim Sullivan was that they strong-armed Boston Calling organizers into hiring union stagehands — help the festival leaders said they didn’t need — in order to secure necessary city permits. Last week, 10 of the 13 members of the Boston City Council joined the chorus of criticism of the case. In a statement, they denounced the prosecution as a “grievous misuse of limited prosecutorial resources” and said it “sets a terrible precedent where government officials who personally received nothing of value can nonetheless face criminal penalties for advocacy that federal prosecutors deem too aggressive.”
Edwards, a former labor lawyer who made her mark championing the cause of exploited domestic workers, led the council effort. She acknowledges that she is, in many ways, an unlikely leader of a council effort seen by some as a defense of backroom wheeling and dealing.
A political outsider accustomed to battling the powers that be, Edwards won an open race for the seat representing East Boston, Charlestown, and the North End by beating a candidate backed by Walsh. Lots of voters felt “putting me in city government was helping to stop some of that,” she said of insider politics that can cut the public out of the decision-making process.
But Edwards said it is her background as an outsider, as a rabble-rousing labor lawyer and community activist, that caused her to be alarmed by the federal convictions. “Sometimes pressure is all we got,” she said.
That was the rationale behind full-page ads taken last week in both Boston daily papers by a coalition of 70 nonprofit organizations. The convictions, the ad said, “will have a chilling effect on our democracy. It is through advocacy, organizing, and good government that democracy is built.”
The claims of advocates and city councilors were met with strong condemnation from Lelling and opinion leaders around town.
“You know what has a chilling effect on democracy?” wrote Globe columnist Joan Vennochi. “Telling concert organizers if they don’t hire union workers they don’t need or want, the City of Boston won’t give them a permit for their event.”
A Herald editorial called the council statement “appalling” and “clueless” and commended Lelling for “bringing shakedown artists to justice.”
A Globe editorial, under the headline “The dumbing down of ‘wrongful’ conduct,” declared: “That a majority of the Boston City Council can’t tell the difference between extortion — which involved in this case putting a business in fear — and advocating for constituents is appalling and perhaps tells us more than we may want to know about how they conduct business.”
But Edwards says there has been a “blurring” of the lines between legal advocacy and illegal extortion. “I don’t think there’s any clarity now,” she said. “You can push to a certain extent, but you can’t go too far because if you make someone feel pressure that they might lose money, then all of a sudden you could be in the field of extortion, even if you don’t receive anything.”
“They’re trying to litigate instead of legislate or try to push for more robust lobbying laws,” Edwards said of efforts to bring criminal charges for behavior some might find objectionable. She called the Globe editorial’s “dumbing down” headline, accompanied by a photo of herself and fellow City Councilor Kim Janey, who are both black, an “offensive” use of “dog whistle tactics.”
The Globe editorial says advocacy that’s out in the open and shared through public filings in the give and take over a development project is very different from threats implied in closed-door conversations that are never subjected to public scrutiny. And as Vennochi points out in her column, former City Hall aide Joe Rull testified in the trial under an immunity deal that when Brissette wanted to use the same “hardball tactic during a previous disagreement concerning the use of nonunion production workers he told him, ‘You can’t do that, it’s not legal.’”
While the public debate over the line between advocacy and extortion continues, courts will sort out the legal distinction. The judge in the Boston Calling trial, Leo Sorokin, who has shown considerable skepticism of the government’s case, is now weighing a petition by the defense for a “judgment of acquittal,” which would essentially overturn the verdict. Barring that outcome, appeals will follow. With government corruption convictions from federal cases in Massachusetts and elsewhere overturned in recent years on appeal, the final outcome is far from certain.
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