March 19, 2018 / 10:28 PM / 6 months ago

Extortion case against Boston officials faces dismissal after ruling

BOSTON (Reuters) - A federal judge on Monday declined to reconsider a ruling that prosecutors said could lead to the dismissal of charges against two members of Boston Mayor Martin Walsh’s administration who are accused of extorting a music festival production company.

Kenneth Brissette (L), director of tourism, sports and entertainment for the city of Boston and defense attorney William Kettlewell, enter federal court in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., December 4, 2017. REUTERS/Nate Raymond

Prosecutors had urged U.S. District Judge Leo Sorokin to reconsider a proposed jury instruction that would require they prove city officials Kenneth Brissette and Timothy Sullivan personally benefited from union workers being hired for the 2014 festival.

Prosecutors argued that if he did not reconsider that instruction, they would “be on a ‘collision course’ with dismissal” due to a lack of evidence to prove their case under that standard.

But Sorokin said prosecutors had pointed to no prior case brought under the federal extortion law, the Hobbs Act, in which someone could be convicted without personally obtaining property or benefiting from the alleged crime.

“If the law were as the government urges, the Hobbs Act’s reach would vastly exceed any traditional conception of extortion, especially where the defendants are public officials,” Sorokin wrote.

U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling in a statement expressed disappointment. It was unclear if the case would still go to trial next Monday, though Sorokin said he could delay it if prosecutors undertake an expected appeal.

Timothy Sullivan (R), chief of staff of intergovernmental affairs for the city of Boston enters federal court in Boston, Massachusetts, U.S., December 4, 2017. REUTERS/Nate Raymond

Lawyers for Brissette and Sullivan did not respond to requests for comment.

The decision marked another setback for federal prosecutors in Boston after jurors in August in a related case acquitted four Teamsters union members of charges that they tried to extort jobs from a production company filming “Top Chef” in 2014.

Sullivan was the city’s chief of staff of intergovernmental relations and Brissette was the head of tourism under Walsh, a Democrat and ex-union leader who first took office in 2014.

Prosecutors said that in 2014, they demanded a non-union production company behind a popular music festival called Boston Calling hire members of a local union, Local 11 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

The company was awaiting permits for the 2014 festival and an extension of a licensing agreement. It only received the permits after agreeing to hire union workers amid threats by Sullivan and Brissette of a picket, prosecutors said.

They said Brissette previously withheld permits to push for Teamsters to work on “Top Chef.”

The case has faced challenges after a federal appeals court in September made it more difficult to prove extortion in cases involving unions, prompting prosecutors to revise the charges against Sullivan and Brissette.

(This version of the story has been corrected to show in paragraph 9 that Walsh first took office in 2014, not that he was first elected in 2014)

Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston

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