Teamsters Local 25 members facing federal extortion charges tied to ‘Top Chef’ production
Four members of a local Teamsters union were indicted Wednesday on federal extortion charges, accused of harassing and intimidating a television show production crew with what US Attorney Carmen Ortiz called “old school thug tactics’’ that reflected “poorly on our city.’’
The members of Teamsters Local 25 were charged with conspiracy and extortion related to their encounters in the spring of 2014 with members of the “Top Chef” staff — including host Padma Lakshmi — while the popular Bravo network cooking show was taping in the Boston area.
Teamsters allegedly warned the show’s producers that they would picket any event in which the crew did not hire union drivers. And when the Top Chef crew attempted to tape an episode at Steel and Rye restaurant in Milton in June 2014, they were allegedly threatened by Teamster members, who “chest-bumped” the Top Chef staff, who were using a nonunion crew.
“The defendants yelled profanities and racial and homophobic slurs at the crew and others,” prosecutors said in an indictment filed in federal court in Boston. They also “blocked vehicles from the entryway to the set and used actual physical violence and threats of physical violence to try and prevent people from entering the set.”
The food show’s staff also reported that their car tires were slashed, authorities said.
“Top Chef” had originally planned to film at a Boston venue. But, according to the indictment, an unnamed official from Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration called two venues — a Boston restaurant and a hotel — and said that, if they hosted the film crew, the union would picket the site. The calls resulted in the venues, identified in the indictment as Omni Parker House and Menton, canceling preplanned events with the television show.
Walsh is a former labor leader, and unions, including the Teamsters, generously supported his campaign for mayor. While serving as a state representative in 2011, he was named head of the Boston Building Trades, an umbrella group that represents unions of ironworkers, electricians, and Local 25. Walsh was paid $175,000 a year, according to records.
Walsh resigned from the post to run for mayor in 2013, the year before the Teamsters’ alleged extortion of “Top Chef” staff. The show was not named in the indictment, though the events at Steel and Rye were publicly reported at the time they occurred.
Walsh initially refused to discuss the indictment or his administration’s relationship with the union Wednesday morning, but he later told reporters that he went on the television show, and that the city granted the permits the show requested.
Walsh appeared on “Top Chef’s” first episode of the season, on Oct. 15, four months after the filming at Steel and Rye.
“If these allegations turn out to be true, then I’m very disappointed by it,” the mayor said. He said he did not know who from his office would have called the restaurants warning of the protests.
“There’s an ongoing case now, clearly,” the mayor said. “There were indictments made today. We’re going to see as we move forward. If we need to be cooperative in any matter, we’re certainly going to be.”
The union members who were arrested Wednesday are Mark Harrington, 61, of Andover, who is the local’s secretary-treasurer; John Fidler, 51, of Holbrook; Daniel Redmond, 47, of Medford; and Robert Cafarelli, 45, of Middleton.
Harrington, Redmond, and Cafarelli pleaded not guilty at a brief court hearing Wednesday and were released on $50,000 unsecured bond. Fidler, who has a criminal record, is slated to appear in court Thursday, and prosecutors are seeking to keep him detained pending trial.
A fifth man was arrested, but the case against was him dismissed after federal authorities realized he was charged in a case of mistaken identity. They are still pursing a fifth person in the extortion case.
Lawyers for Redmond, Cafarelli, and Fidler would not comment Wednesday.
Robert Goldstein, an attorney for Harrington, said that his client “is innocent.”
“The only conduct in which he engaged in is to exercise his lawful right to protest a company that was not maintaining area standards for wages and benefits,” Goldstein said.
According to the indictment, Local 25 leaders confronted the producers of “Top Chef” and demanded that they hire Teamsters while they were filming in Greater Boston.
Harrington allegedly told crew members that “he did not care about [the television crew] and that all he cared about was that some of his guys get hired on the show,” according to the indictment.
“Harrington and another official warned the producer that if [the show] did not make a deal with Local 25, they would start to follow them and picket.”
At Steel and Rye, the members allegedly threatened the crew, including Lakshmi, the host, with one Teamster allegedly screaming at her, “We’re gonna bash that pretty face in,” you [expletive] whore,” according to press accounts at the time.
Labor representatives said then that members were legally protesting the show’s use of nonunion workers. A representative from Local 25 could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
In a statement, Ortiz said, “A group of rogue Teamsters employed old-school thug tactics to get no-work jobs from an out of town production company.”
She added, “This kind of conduct reflects poorly on our city and must be addressed for what it is — not union organizing, but criminal extortion.”
The Charlestown-based Teamsters Local 25 has had a historically volatile relationship with Hollywood, according to Boston Globe archives.
And last year, two members of Boston-based Teamsters Local 82 — which was merged into Local 25 because of organizational disputes — were convicted of racketeering for rigging elections and intimidating business owners.
Meanwhile, Teamsters Local 25 has built a politically powerful base. In 2013, the group donated $14,999 to Walsh’s mayoral campaign.
Other checks have included $1,500 to former state representative Eugene O’Flaherty, who is now a top adviser to Walsh at City Hall, and $1,500 to Felix G. Arroyo, a former city councilor whom Walsh hired as chief of health and human services.
Also, in the last year the union has given each of Boston’s 13 City Council members a $500 donation.
The Massachusetts Republican Party issued a statement Wednesday urging city officials to return any contributions they received from the union. But many balked.
“Councilor [Ayanna] Pressley views the alleged actions of the rogue group of Teamsters as repugnant,’’ said James Chisholm, the councilor’s campaign and communications manager. But, he added, “At this point, so early in the process and with no indication of involvement from anyone other than this rogue group of five individuals among Local 25’s 11,000 members, Councilor Pressley does not plan to return the recent donations.”
Councilor Bill Linehan, of South Boston, said in a statement he is waiting for further details on the indictments.
“At this time, I do not plan to return the contribution Local 25 gave my campaign,’’ Linehan said. “A portion of this contribution stems from union dues generated by the hard-working men and women of Local 25, which is greatly appreciated.”