Metro

KEVIN CULLEN

The takeaway from the ‘Top Chef’ case? It belonged in state court

Defendant John Fidler (right) left the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse after being found not guilty in the “Top Chef” trial.
Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff
Defendant John Fidler (right) left the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse after being found not guilty in the “Top Chef” trial.

Let’s be clear: A federal jury sitting in Boston did not say that the Teamsters who acted like thugs while intimidating a non-union crew on the reality TV show “Top Chef” did nothing wrong.

Instead, the jury found the so-called Teamster 4 were not guilty of attempted extortion as defined by the Hobbs Act.

There’s a big difference.

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The idea that the jury gave every union picketer a green light to threaten the lives of non-union workers and slash tires with impunity is just not true. But it might just be true that the jury is giving prosecutors a signal that the most egregious strong-arm tactics should be prosecuted in state court, not federal court.

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Having listened to the closing arguments in the case last week, and the circumspect language of the presiding judge, I wasn’t surprised by the verdict. Defense lawyers made a compelling case that because the Teamsters were trying to replace the non-union workers, not simply trying to get no-show or superfluous jobs, it wasn’t extortion under federal law but a legally protected right to advocate for work.

A 24-second video recorded on the cellphone of one of the non-union workers, which captured one of the Teamsters spewing the c-word and other hateful, bigoted words, while another paced and punched a fist into his hand, was ugly. But that and testimony from the TV show’s crew about how intimidated and fearful they felt was not enough evidence to sustain a guilty verdict for the federal charge of attempted extortion that carries a 20-year sentence.

Even the judge presiding over the case, a former prosecutor named Douglas Woodlock, seemed unsure about the wisdom in bringing the case in federal court.

“Is it appropriate to slash tires? I would say not,” he told defense attorney Oscar Cruz, without the jury present. “Is it a federal crime? I would say no.”

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That might be the takeaway here.

Which raises the question: Why weren’t charges brought by state authorities?

Jillian Fennimore, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Maura Healey, said her office would typically defer to local district attorneys in such cases.

David Traub, a spokesman for Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey, said his office did not receive a complaint to act upon from the Milton police, whose officers were outside the Steel & Rye restaurant where the confrontation between Teamsters and the TV show crew took place in 2014.

I left Milton Police Chief John King a message but didn’t hear back. King was deputy chief of the department at the time of the incident.

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Defense attorneys had considered calling at least two Milton police officers as witnesses, presumably to say that what they saw did not rise to a criminal offense. The prosecution suggested they would rebut that testimony with their own witness, a deputy chief in Milton. In the end, no one from the Milton Police Department testified at the trial.

At least two witnesses, including Sandee Birdsong, the head of culinary production for the TV show, testified that they sought help from Milton police officers but they did not respond. One witness testified that the officers seemed to be friendly with some of the Teamsters.

Defense attorneys argued that anything said on a picket line, short of physical violence, was protected speech under federal law. The jury apparently agreed.

Woodlock told the acquitted Teamsters they should reconsider how they behave on picket lines in the future.

Acting US Attorney William Weinreb made no apologies for bringing the charges.

“The government believed, and continues to believe, that the conduct in this case crossed the line and constituted a violation of federal law,” he said. “The defendants’ conduct was an affront to all the hard-working and law-abiding members of organized labor.”

Weinreb said the feds will continue to be aggressive when it comes to prosecuting “extortion in all its forms to ensure that Boston remains a safe and welcoming place to do business.”

They might not win, Weinreb seemed to be saying, but they will continue to bring charges in cases where union picketers act like goons. They won’t have to if state authorities step up.

Christina DiIorio-Sterling, a spokeswoman for the US attorney’s office, told me there was no discussion between federal and state authorities about which court would be the most appropriate venue for bringing charges.

“We believe it was a federal case,” she said.

She also said it would not constitute double jeopardy for state authorities to bring different charges in state court in the wake of the acquittal.

Theoretically, charges in state court are still possible. There was plenty of testimony from witnesses about threats, coercion, and malicious destruction of property. But such charges, after an acquittal in federal court, seem unlikely, unless Milton police belatedly present evidence to either the Norfolk DA or the AG’s office.

Two years ago, Healey denounced the alleged behavior of the Teamsters accused of intimidating the non-union film crew. But she’s also praised the Teamsters as an organization and accepted campaign donations from them.

I’ve been a union guy my whole life. My father was a union guy his whole life, as was his father before him. Unions secure benefits, help bring about fair wages and working conditions, and helped create a middle class that is being gutted as the number of union workers drop and the pay gap between ordinary workers and one-percenters grows exponentially. Unions are needed, more than ever.

But the way the Teamsters behaved outside Steel & Rye badly tarnished the image of organized labor, and labor leaders who think Tuesday’s verdict gives them a green light to do anything they want on a picket line are doing themselves and their members no favors.

In golf terms, the verdict was a Mulligan. A bad shot that doesn’t count.

There’s no Mulligan for Mark Harrington, the former secretary and treasurer of Teamsters Local 25 who was with the other four outside the Steel & Rye that day. Harrington pleaded guilty to the charges last year and was sentenced to six months of home confinement. He admitted he did wrong and took his punishment.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com