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This Federal Prosecutor Is Building A Career Indicting The Good Guys

But is U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz the one gone wrong?

Last week, Carmen Ortiz, the top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts, announced a big indictment.

At 6:30 in the morning, Tim Sullivan, an aide to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, was arrested at his home and accused of conspiring to withhold permits from a music festival until its organizers hired union stagehands. Pressuring a company to pay union wages and benefits, Ortiz contends, is quite literally a federal crime.

That argument might surprise many people in Boston, a heavily unionized city where organized labor’s role in municipal decision-making is often mandated by law. The city law that created the Boston Employment Commission is one example: The commission’s seven members must include representatives of organized labor. And Boston, like the federal government and many other cities and states, requires its private contractors to pay the locally “prevailing wage,” which effectively means a wage comparable to what a union would demand. That diminishes the incentive for those contractors to seek non-union labor.

There’s a public safety element, too. Concert work can be surprisingly dangerous and exhausting, not to mention low-paying. Big concert producers are currently driving down wages in the industry through the use of temps and “independent contractors.” Using union labor is one way not just to prop up pay and working conditions in the field, but to help make sure trained stagehands are doing the risky work.

What wouldn’t surprise Boston is that Ortiz, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts since 2009, is once again bringing the full force of the law down on semi-high-profile people for minor or legally ambiguous crimes.

And once again, those alleged misdeeds seemingly worthy of prosecution are not the acts of hardened criminals, but were committed in the pursuit of progressive social goals. “You’d like to think the focus would be on those organizations like human trafficking rings, drug smuggling rings, the kind of organizations that in and of themselves represent a threat to safety, public safety,” said Martha Coakley, a former Massachusetts attorney general. But with many of Ortiz’s prosecutions, she said, “there’s a competing social interest, sort of civil disobedience context.”

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