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Union local’s ‘sordid’ past reprised in ‘Top Chef’ charges

Teamsters Local 25 members Robert Cafarelli (left) and Mark Harrington left Moakley Courthouse on Wednesday following their indictments on extortion charges.
Teamsters Local 25 members Robert Cafarelli (left) and Mark Harrington left Moakley Courthouse on Wednesday following their indictments on extortion charges.JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF

When a Hollywood crew arrived in Boston in the late 1970s to film “The Brink’s Job” about a brazen North End robbery dubbed the crime of the century, it was the victim of another hold-up — this one by members of Teamsters Local 25.

Two union job captains ordered the movie company to put fictitious workers on its payroll and mail the checks to the Somerville home of a Local 25 trustee and general organizer. The company quietly paid, but the plot to extort money from that movie company and several others was later exposed, and the men behind it were sent to prison on federal racketeering charges.

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On Wednesday, a federal indictment accuses four members of the same Charlestown-based union with threatening and harassing the “Top Chef” staff while the popular reality show was filming in Greater Boston. It is the latest chapter in the union’s checkered history of dealing with Hollywood.

The indictment alleges that Local 25 members shouted profanities and racial and homophobic slurs at the show’s crew, slashed the tires on their cars, and threatened to stop production because the show hired non-union drivers. The members are charged with attempted extortion.

Robert M. Bloom, a Boston College law professor and former prosecutor, said that while the Teamsters may have “a history of doing spotty things,” the government does not frequently bring indictments against unions.

“Obviously, unions are important to elections and one way to not get the union support is to go after them criminally,” he said. “The decision to go after a union in a criminal way is obviously a legal decision, but politics enters the equation.”

US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz, whose office brought the new case against the four Teamsters, is not an elected official, She serves at the pleasure of President Obama, who nominated her in 2009.

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The president of Local 25, Sean M. O’Brien, could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but acknowledged in a 2011 Globe interview that the union “had a sordid past in the motion-picture industry.”

However, O’Brien said at the time that he and other local union leaders traveled to Hollywood in an effort to convince the industry that the climate in Massachusetts had improved with the enforcement of a new code of conduct.

The overture by union leaders and state officials had come after decades in which local unions had a reputation for driving up costs on movie sets and adding unnecessary workers to a job.

In recent years, the state, which offers a film and television production tax credit, has been widely successful in luring Hollywood projects to Massachusetts.

Films that have recently filmed in the state include: “Black Mass,” starring Johnny Depp as James “Whitey” Bulger; “Spotlight,” the Tom McCarthy film about The Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal; “Ghostbusters,” a remake starring an all-female cast; “The Judge,” starring Robert Downey Jr.; and “The Finest Hours,” about a dramatic rescue by the US Coast Guard off Cape Cod.

That success followed decades of tumult, controversy, and criminal allegations involving Local 25.

In 2003, George Cashman, who had billed himself as a reformer for 11 years as the flamboyant and politically powerful president of Local 25, was sentenced to 34 months in prison for swindling the union he vowed to clean up.

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He pleaded guilty to extorting a $20,000 kickback from a health care company and falsifying work orders so that 19 ineligible truck drivers — including a Charlestown gangster — could collect union medical benefits.

In a letter to the judge seeking leniency for Cashman, former Governor William F. Weld credited Cashman with wooing filmmakers back to the state after they had threatened to boycott Massachusetts “on account of corruption problems with the Teamsters.”

Cashman replaced the local Teamsters who had been dealing with the movie industry and personally accompanied Weld to California to meet with studio executives, the former governor said.

In 2001, then-governor Paul Cellucci vowed to make key changes recommended in a state-funded report that criticized him and the Teamsters union for allowing the state to become a “celluloid pariah” in the film industry.


Shelley Murphy can be reached at shelley.murphy@globe.com. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com.