Boston tourism director charged with ‘union-related’ extortion

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BOSTON – Saddened and “shocked” to learn that his tourism chief had been indicted for extortion Thursday morning, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh praised the top city official, who he said would remain on paid leave.

“I think when you go out and ask people, anybody, they’ll say great things about the man, about his job performance, and he’s a workaholic, and again this is a very sad situation and an unfortunate situation,” Walsh told reporters Thursday afternoon.

Federal prosecutors indicted Kenneth Brissette, Boston’s director of tourism, sports and entertainment, on an extortion charge, alleging he told a music festival production company it would need to hire union labor for a September 2014 event – identified by Walsh likely as Boston Calling, which is set to return to City Hall Plaza later this month.

Brissette and “at least one other City Hall employee” repeatedly told the production company to hire union workers, the indictment states. After the company agreed three days before the festival to employ eight International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 11 laborers and one foreman, Boston “issued the necessary permits,” according to the indictment.

Brissette entered a not guilty plea to the charge during his arraignment Thursday afternoon in federal district court in Boston, the Associated Press reported.

“I don’t condone any of this type of behavior, or anything like this alleged,” Walsh told reporters in East Boston. “In my administration, I tell everyone to be honest and upfront and very open,” he said. Walsh also said he continues to have confidence in Brissette, and he plans to “wait and see what happens” in the criminal proceedings against him.

Saying he learned of Brissette’s arrest via Twitter, Walsh continued with his previously scheduled event – a groundbreaking in East Boston with Gov. Charlie Baker.

Walsh said the city would work cooperatively with federal prosecutors to “get to the bottom of this investigation,” denied any wrongdoing on his part and said he had “no idea” whether additional federal indictments were forthcoming.

The mayor, who plans to run for a second term next year, said he had put together a committee to look at the procedures of the tourism office and denied that the indictment besmirched City Hall.

“I wouldn’t necessarily call it an embarrassment. I’m certainly not happy about it. I think that it’s something that if this pans out where there’s wrongdoings here, there’s problem,” Walsh said in the dirt drive leading to the site of a $71 million residential project on the East Boston waterfront. He said, “I take the integrity of this office very seriously.”

U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, whose office convicted former Speaker Salvatore DiMasi and three former top probation department officials in past years, has loomed large on Beacon Hill in recent months, raiding the law offices of Milton Democrat Sen. Brian Joyce and, according to a Wednesday Boston Globe report, subpoenaing Senate documents.

“I know I’ve done nothing wrong in any of my doings as mayor of the city of Boston. I’m very confident of that,” Walsh told reporters.

The indictment also delves into allegations that Brissette pressured a company working on a reality television program, previously identified as Top Chef, to hire union labor – a charge that attorney Brian Kelly previously investigated for the city, finding no city employees committed crimes.

Walsh said he doesn’t think Kelly “missed anything.”

Brissette allegedly told a filming location scout not to release permits to a production company, and allegedly told a producer the permits wouldn’t be released until the company came to agreement with a local union seeking driving jobs on the production, according to the indictment dated Tuesday and released Thursday.

Brissette “relented” because the company agreed to meet with the union, but Brissette also contacted two of the planned filming locations in Boston, resulting in those entities informing the film company they could no longer shoot there, according to the indictment.

Last fall federal prosecutors charged members of Teamsters Local 25 with extortion, alleging that after filming moved to Milton, union members showed up and “chest-bumped and stomach-bumped” crew members, and yelled “racial and homophobic slurs.”

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Laura Kaplan and Kristina Barclay signed the indictments against both the Teamsters and Brissette, and both indictments appear to carry the signature of the same grand jury foreperson.

In June 2014, around the time he allegedly ordered the permits for the reality cooking show held, Brissette told Boston’s chief of operations and the director of the Massachusetts State Film Office he had “pulled” the permits, according to the indictment, which said the operations chief told Brissette he could not do that because it is illegal.

Joe Rull was operations chief in the summer of 2014, according to City Hall.

When asked whether he heard about his operations chief admonishing Brissette for pulling the permits, Walsh said he didn’t want to comment on the indictment. He also declined to say whether he had appeared before the grand jury.

“I give a lot of authority to the people around me. Certainly we’re going to be having conversations about how do we get a better hold of certain things,” Walsh said.

Amy Yandle has been appointed interim director in Brissette’s absence, according to a Walsh spokeswoman.

A Democrat who represented Dorchester in the House of Representatives after winning a special election in 1997, Walsh won the mayor’s office after Tom Menino declined to seek a sixth term in 2013. During his final years in the Legislature, Walsh was elected secretary-treasurer and general agent of the Boston Building Trades, a construction union.

The indictment states that the union had attempted to gain work at the music festival starting in March 2013, and notes, “In January 2014, the administration of the City of Boston changed” as Walsh took office.

In August 2014, Brissette allegedly told a representative from another company that filming had to be done “in a union environment.”

Asked if he ever proactively told employees not to engage in the type of behavior outlined in the indictment, Walsh said, “It never came up in conversation. It’s not how we do business in the city. We don’t necessarily look and see if something’s union or not union.”

Brissette worked at the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism for the bulk of the Patrick administration, leaving the position of chief operating officer for the state agency in the spring of 2014 to head up tourism at City Hall.

Walsh confirmed Brissette had worked on his campaign and said the last time he had spoken to him was at a recent Boston Common event announcing details of the Adidas Boost Boston Games, which are taking place in June.

Written by Andy Metzger