Before Becoming Boston's Mayor, Biden's Labor Pick Was Embroiled in Union Extortion Scandal

Marty Walsh's subordinates convicted of conspiracy, accepting bribes

Boston mayor Marty Walsh (D.) / Getty Images
January 12, 2021

President-elect Joe Biden's pick for labor secretary was once caught on a wiretap admitting that he threatened a development company for refusing to use union workers.

Biden chose Boston mayor Marty Walsh (D.) to lead the Department of Labor, praising the longtime union ally as a "good friend" and "stand up guy" in a Friday announcement. As head of Boston's Building and Construction Trades Council, however, Walsh was ensnared in a federal probe alleging strong-arm tactics by union leaders.

Federal agents captured Walsh on tape candidly discussing strong-arm tactics with a fellow local labor leader in October 2012. The Boston Democrat recalled threatening development company AvalonBay with "permitting problems" on an upcoming project should it fail to hire union laborers, according to a 2016 Boston Globe report. A second Boston developer, Michael Rauseo, accused Walsh of employing similar tactics during a meeting held just months later. Rauseo told the Globe that, in December 2012, Walsh "demanded" that he rescind contracts issued to non-union contractors for an upcoming apartment project.

Walsh boasts deep ties to Biden: The president-elect spoke at Walsh's 2017 mayoral inauguration, and the pair have been photographed together in Boston on multiple occasions. Walsh also defended Biden following accusations of inappropriately touching women, calling Biden a "very emotional person" who "respects women."

Walsh's personal relationship with Biden—as well as his "traditional union background"—could boost his chances of advancing union-friendly policies in the Biden administration, Workplace Policy Institute cochair Michael Lotito told the Washington Free Beacon.

"Joe Biden has said that he wants to be the most pro-union president in history, so it's not surprising that he picked Walsh as his labor secretary in order to help make his dream come true," Lotito said. "One of the things [Walsh] can do is recommend to Mr. Biden different executive orders, especially those that involve government contractors … and since it appears that Biden and Walsh have a long-standing personal relationship, Walsh might be in a position to influence Biden."

Neither Biden's presidential transition team nor Walsh responded to requests for comment.

While Walsh maintained that he did "nothing wrong" throughout the federal probe and was not indicted, two members of his administration, intergovernmental-affairs director Timothy Sullivan and tourism director Kenneth Brissette, were convicted of extortion-related conspiracy in August 2019. Roughly five years prior, the pair told a music festival production company that it needed to hire local union members in order to receive permits for an upcoming event. The company feared it would be "financially ruined" if it "did not accede to these City officials' demands" and agreed to hire the union members, according to a 2019 Justice Department press release.

Sullivan and Brisette's convictions were overturned in February 2020, when a federal judge ruled that the two officials did not receive a "personal payoff" as a result of their conduct. But another Walsh city hall official, development and planning agency employee John Lynch, pleaded guilty to accepting a $50,000 bribe in September 2019. Walsh distanced himself from the scandals, saying "you can't monitor every single person's actions."

Walsh served as a Massachusetts state lawmaker from 1997 to 2013, during which time he enjoyed a cozy relationship with local unions. He was named head of union umbrella group Boston Building Trades in 2011, resigning two years later to run for mayor. He has received more than $500,000 from labor groups throughout his political career, state campaign-finance disclosures show.

Walsh's labor-secretary bid was endorsed by a number of top unions, including the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka celebrated Walsh's nomination, touting the Boston Democrat's status as a "longtime union member" who will "have the ear of the White House" as he works to implement union-backed legislation.