A federal court today reinstated extortion charges against two City Hall officials who allegedly leaned on the company that runs the Boston Calling festival to hire members of a particular union.
US District Court Judge Leo Sorokin had dismissed the charges against Kenneth Brissette and Timothy Sullivan a year ago, just days before they were to go on trial. Brissette was director of the city's Office of Tourism, Sports, and Entertainment, which held power over the required permits, while Sullivan was Mayor Walsh's chief of staff for intergovernmental relations.
But in a ruling today, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston vacated his dismissal, sending the case back to him for potential trial, saying Sorokin had too narrowly defined the proof the government would need to show to win an extortion trial.
Sorokin had dismissed the case against the two because the government had provided no proof they had earned any "personal benefit" from repeatedly telling Boston Calling organizers to hire members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, local 11, for an upcoming Boston Calling festival on City Hall Plaza in 2014. Such proof, Sorokin said, was a requirement for a successful prosecution under the federal Hobbs Act, which governs extortion cases.
Sorokin ruled that the act's definition of extortion - "the obtaining of property from another, with his consent, induced by wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence, or fear, or under color of official right" - coupled with some court cases means that the party being extorted has to give up something of value and the party doing the extortion has to take it.
But the appeals court ruled today that Sorokin had used too narrow a definition of the Hobbs Act and related court decisions and that even if Brissette and Sullivan did not personally profit from the alleged outcome - in which Boston Calling agreed to hire a crew of Local 11 workers - a jury should decide whether they are guilty of extortion. The court said that an extortion case can be made even against people who have not directly benefited from that extortion, if prosecutors can show they instilled a sense of "economic fear" in order " to achieve a wrongful purpose."
The court emphasized it was not taking a position on whether Brissette and Sullivan did this, but said that was why it was sending the court back down to district court, where a jury could hear evidence on the issue.
In fact, the court emphasized it is mindful that even "fear of economic harm" can be a legitimate part of both business and government negotiations, and that courts must be careful not to do anything to prevent the "legitimate exercises of official authority."
The court concluded that proof of "obtaining of property:"
[M]ay be satisfied by evidence showing that the defendants induced the victim's consent to transfer property to third parties the
defendants identified, even where the defendants do not incur any personal benefit from the transfer and even where the transfer takes the form of wages paid for real rather than fictitious work.