Teamsters found not guilty in ‘Top Chef’ trial
The four Teamsters accused of hurling racial epithets and sexist slurs at a “Top Chef” crew filming in Milton in 2014 were acquitted Tuesday in a high-profile case that tested the line between illegal strong-arm tactics and legitimate union advocacy.
After nearly 20 hours of deliberations, the jury found the union members not guilty of conspiracy to extort and attempted extortion, federal charges that carried a maximum of 20 years in prison.
The men — Daniel Redmond, 49; John Fidler, 53; Robert Cafarelli, 47; and Michael Ross, 63 — were visibly relieved as the verdicts were read. Fidler, who had been accused of threatening to “smash” the face of “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi, rubbed his temples and nodded gratefully at the jurors, a group of nine women and three men.
Cafarelli leaned back in his chair and sighed as his wife, who sat three rows behind him in the courtroom, cried.
“I want to call my kids,” Cafarelli said in a brief interview after the verdict. “That’s what I want to do.”
The case was closely watched by labor leaders, who worried a conviction could chill union organizing. It also cast a spotlight on Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration, as several prosecution witnesses described how a city official seemed poised to rescind permits for the show to mollify the Teamsters.
Prosecutors called 18 witnesses, most of them production assistants who were at the Steel & Rye restaurant in Milton when the Teamsters arrived to picket the set. Many of them said the four men, who represented the Charlestown-based Teamsters Local 25, cursed at female producers, threatened to beat up crew members, and tried to stop production by blocking a delivery truck.
At least two witnesses said the tires on their vehicles were slashed, although no one witnessed the vandalism. A video showed one of the men calling a female producer a “towel head” and an expletive used to insult women, among other slurs.
Prosecutors argued that the Teamsters were trying to intimidate the non-union show into giving them jobs driving equipment, positions filled by production assistants.
Witnesses also testified that Kenneth Brissette, the city’s tourism director, said the show should not receive permits to film in Boston until producers resolved their dispute with the union.
Brissette and another City Hall aide, Timothy Sullivan, face extortion charges in a separate case alleging that they threatened to revoke permits for the Boston Calling music festival because its organizers would not hire union members. Set to go on trial in January, they have been on paid leave since their arrests last year. They have pleaded not guilty.
Walsh, a former labor leader, said Tuesday he was relieved the trial was over and reiterated that no one in his administration had tried to interfere with “Top Chef’s’’ filming.
“Strong-arming is a thing of the past,” he said. “Regardless of what trade it is, what union it is, I don’t condone that activity. I never have. I never will.”
Prosecutors said the Teamsters violated the Hobbs Act, the 1946 law that made it a federal crime to use robbery or extortion to influence interstate commerce. Union members are historically protected from Hobbs Act prosecutions as long as their actions are taken in pursuit of legitimate union objectives.
Lawyers for the Teamsters asserted the men did not violate the act because they were picketing to replace underpaid production assistants with experienced union members who would receive better wages.
“We’ve always felt this prosecution was misplaced,” Carmine Lepore, Cafarelli’s lawyer, said after the verdict. “I think that the jury saw this case for what it was — the government had to prove a violation of law and they didn’t do it.”
In a statement, Acting US Attorney William Weinreb said he was disappointed by the verdict.
“The defendants’ conduct was an affront to all of the hard-working and law-abiding members of organized labor,” he said. “We will continue to aggressively prosecute extortion in all its forms to ensure that Boston remains a safe and welcoming place to do business.”
Union leaders said the verdict showed that the case was an overreach.
“This is clearly a case of taking a sledgehammer to swat a fly,” said Mark Erlich, former head of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters. “The threat of 20 years in federal prison was disproportionate to inappropriate behavior on a picket line.”
Steven A. Tolman, president of Massachusetts AFL-CIO, said the verdict was a victory for unions’ right to protest unfair working conditions.
“I do not condone any behavior that spreads intolerance, violence, or hate,” Tolman said. “But the jury understood that the Hobbs Act . . . has no relevance to a picket line.”
Luka Ladan, spokesman for the Center for Union Facts, a business-backed group that describes itself as a union watchdog, said the verdict shows the need to remove the loophole that protects unions from prosecutions.
“It’s a sad day when union harassment goes unpunished,” Ladan said. “Under our labor laws, union enforcers get away with extortion if they have ‘legitimate labor objectives’ in mind.”
After the verdict, US District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock, who presided over the trial, looked sternly at the defendants and urged them to consider their behavior more carefully in the future.
“I would encourage the defendants to think long and hard . . . about approaching boundaries,’’ he said.