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‘Top Chef’ indictment triggers City Hall review

Extortion case raises questions

Brian Kelly, who helped convict “Whitey” Bulger, will investigate City Hall’s role in a local union’s alleged extortion scheme.
Brian Kelly, who helped convict “Whitey” Bulger, will investigate City Hall’s role in a local union’s alleged extortion scheme.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Mayor Martin J. Walsh hired a former federal corruption prosecutor Thursday as questions persist about his administration’s role in calling targets of an alleged extortion scheme by Teamsters who opposed the use of nonunion workers on the television show “Top Chef.”

Walsh told reporters that Brian T. Kelly will investigate on City Hall’s behalf “to make sure that the city has done everything correctly.” But the mayor did not pledge to make Kelly’s findings public, and his work appears to be exempt from the open records law because of attorney-client privilege.

The federal indictment charging that five Teamsters had harassed and intimidated “Top Chef” producers includes a single line stating that an unidentified member of Walsh’s administration had called a hotel and restaurant to say that union members would picket if the businesses hosted the TV shoot.

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No city employees have been charged with a crime. The identity of the City Hall caller has not been publicly disclosed, and Walsh said in a statement Thursday he did not know who called the businesses.

Two people familiar with the investigation identified the caller as Kenneth Brissette, the Walsh administration’s director of tourism, sports, and entertainment. Brissette did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Before being hired by Walsh in April 2014, Brissette worked at the State House, where he ran the Office of Travel and Tourism.

This year, as he was organizing the New England Patriots Super Bowl victory parade, Brissette described his city job as the “minister of fun.

The indictment’s reference to City Hall is particularly sticky for Walsh, a longtime labor leader who won the mayor’s office with the staunch financial support of Teamsters and other unions.

As a prosecutor, Kelly helped convict gangster James “Whitey” Bulger and headed the public corruption unit in the US attorney’s office. Kelly, now a partner at Nixon Peabody, also prosecuted members of Teamsters Local 25, the union accused in the extortion scheme.

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In an interview with the Globe, Kelly said he sees his role “as assisting in an internal review of this matter and assisting the city in its dealings with the federal authorities.”

When asked why the city needed an outside lawyer, he said, “There are serious allegations involved here, and the city is simply being prudent and wants to make sure it gets to the bottom of the situation.”

The crew from “Top Chef,” a Bravo network cooking show, ultimately abandoned plans to tape at the Omni Parker House and the upscale French restaurant Menton, and relocated to a restaurant in Milton, where Teamsters are accused of yelling profanities, hurling racial and homophobic slurs, slashing tires, and making “threats of physical violence to try and prevent people from entering the set.”

The Walsh administration said it granted the production company all requested permits and did nothing to obstruct taping by a nonunion crew. The mayor even tacitly endorsed “Top Chef” by appearing on a segment filmed at the Museum of Science before the incident in Milton.

“This is an awkward moment for the mayor,” said Jeffrey M. Berry, a Tufts University political scientist. “Although there is no smoking gun, the mayor’s office is implicated in behavior that suggests pressure was applied to the Omni Parker House.”

The indictment’s neutral language described phone calls in June 2014 from “a representative from the City of Boston” to the Omni Parker House and Menton, where filming was scheduled the for the next day. The court filing said the city official called “to inform” the establishments they could face a picket line from Local 25.

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The indictment’s reference to City Hall was “curious,” said Roger I. Abrams, a labor law specialist and professor at Northeastern Law School. The phone calls did not appear to cross a line, Abrams said, but the sentence mentioning the city official was not included by mistake.

“It’s not superfluous. Normally, those indictments do not contain as we lawyers like to say, ‘mere surpluses,’ ” Abrams said.

The indictment did not reveal the content or tone of the phone calls. It did not say that the unidentified city official exerted pressure. But the end result was clear: The Omni Parker House and Menton told the production company that it was no longer welcome.

“From reading the indictment, it could have been a friendly heads up” about a potential picket line, said Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a fiscal watchdog funded by businesses and nonprofit institutions. “Or it could be furthering the interest of a union, which is inappropriate for a public official.”

Susan Moir, executive director of the Labor Resource Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston, described the Omni Parker House as a symbol in the labor movement. The staff is unionized, she said, and for years organized labor has hosted events at the hotel.

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“To me, it is not in any way suspicious that someone would let the Parker House know that there was a possible picket line,” said Moir, who was active in Walsh’s mayoral campaign. “That happens all the time.”

Members of Teamsters Local 25 have gone to prison in the past for extorting money from film companies. Still, the local has remained a potent political force, and the mayor is one of many elected officials who have embraced the union.

As a top labor leader, Walsh was paid to advocate on behalf of the Teamsters and other unions. While serving as a state representative, Walsh in 2011 was named head of the Boston Building Trades, an umbrella group representing ironworkers, electricians, and Teamsters Local 25.

Walsh resigned from the building trades’ position in 2013 when he launched his mayoral bid. Teamsters Local 25 donated $14,999 to Walsh’s campaign. Other unions took advantage of a law allowing organized labor to contribute substantially more than individuals.

The fall 2013 edition of Teamsters Local 25’s newsletter “The Spokesman” trumpeted Walsh’s victory. The front of the newsletter carried a large picture of Walsh with his arm around Sean M. O’Brien, the union’s president, who was not named in the indictment.

“Teamsters Local 25 was instrumental in electing our next mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh,” the newsletter read. “Members understood what was at stake during this election, and I think the media’s constant negative portrayal of labor only made us stronger.”

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Most modern labor disputes are settled by lawyers who fight in court and not on worksites, said Jake Rosenfeld, a sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis who wrote the 2014 book “What Unions No Longer Do.” That makes allegations against Local 25 stick out.

“It conjures up images of labor’s unseemly past,” Rosenfeld said. “The stereotypical image of organized labor has proven pretty hard to shake despite the fact that both organized labor’s power and the shenanigans that were pretty commonplace in certain unions in periods past have really just gone away.”


Meghan E. Irons and Shelley Murphy of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com.