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Probe clears City Hall in ‘Top Chef’ extortion claim

A courtroom sketch shows Teamsters members during their arraignments on extortion charges stemming from an alleged incident concerning the "Top Chef" television program.Jane Flavell Collins

An investigator hired by the Walsh administration after several Teamsters were indicted said Monday he found no criminal wrongdoing in the case by any city employees but did find a concerted effort to preserve the administration’s relationship with the local labor union.

Brian T. Kelly, a former prosecutor who is now an attorney with the Boston law firm Nixon Peabody, found that no city employee had been part of the Teamsters’ alleged extortion of the Bravo television show “Top Chef,” allegations that led to federal indictments earlier this year.

Kenneth Brissette, the city’s director of tourism, sports, and entertainment, warned two restaurants that the Teamsters might picket the “Top Chef” shoots at their establishments. He also warned a top tourism official to avoid “Top Chef” in the future.


Kelly’s review focused on whether Brissette colluded with the Teamsters.

“That was our goal, to see if any person made [a] call and were part of any conspiracy to shake down ‘Top Chef,’ and that’s not the case,” said Kelly, the former public corruption chief for the US attorney’s office in Boston.

Brissette was not disciplined. However, a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Monday that “while no city employee was involved in the illegal activities alleged in the federal indictment, it is not advisable for city employees to get involved in any labor or employer disputes. The city will review attorney Kelly’s report and look at best practices moving forward.”

Kelly found that city employees were frustrated with the “politically awkward” position of working with a show that had hired nonunion workers. Walsh is a former union official who benefited from the support of organized labor in his 2013 election.

The review found that Brissette referred to the Teamsters’ displeasure with the show as a “mess” he wanted to resolve, and he feared that the appearance of city officials on the show “would embarrass” the officials.


The 11-page report also said that City Hall officials were so concerned with the show’s decision to hire non-union workers that Walsh wanted to revisit his own appearance on the show.

Walsh had filmed a segment of “Top Chef” at the Museum of Science on May 18, 2014, nearly three weeks before he learned the show had been employing nonunion workers.

The city’s involvement in the labor dispute was first disclosed in the indictment of five Teamsters members in September. The Teamsters are accused of harassing and intimidating “Top Chef” crew members to extort jobs during a picket of the show’s filming at the Steel & Rye restaurant in Milton in June 2014. They still await trial.

Brissette told Kelly that he warned the Boston restaurants as a courtesy so that business would not be disrupted and had not told them to cancel the “Top Chef” filming. He said no one told him to make the phone calls.

John Murtha, general manager of Omni Parker House, and Barbara Lynch, owner and operator of Menton, told Kelly that they appreciated the “heads’ up” from Brissette and that they did not feel threatened by the phone call.

However, both establishments canceled the “Top Chef” filming that was scheduled at their restaurants. Murtha explained to Kelly that the Omni is a union workplace, and he did not want customers or his employees burdened by a union protest; Lynch said she did not want to see her business affected.


Court records suggest that Brissette’s phone call warning the Boston restaurants and the subsequent cancellations had forced the show to scramble to find a new location outside of Boston.

Walsh told reporters in late September that he hired Kelly to review the city’s connection to the indictment “to make sure that the city has done everything correctly.”

Kelly told reporters at his law office Monday that he interviewed nine city employees, including Walsh and Brissette, as well as Murtha and Lynch, and reviewed City Hall documents and e-mails.

Several people he sought to interview would not cooperate, including Sean O’Brien, president of Teamsters Local 25, and Derek Cunningham, of Boston Scouting, who worked as a location scout for “Top Chef” and had relayed the Teamsters’ displeasure with the show’s production in Boston to Brissette and others.

Kelly has billed the city $60,000 so far. He presented his report and recommendations to officials on Monday.

Kelly said he found no evidence that the city had revoked or delayed the issuance of any permits for “Top Chef,” though a producer had raised that concern.

He also said there was no evidence Brissette acted in collusion with the union, but he added that the phone call could have been “problematic” if any of the business owners had felt threatened — a business owner could have interpreted the call as City Hall weighing in on a labor issue.

According to the report, Brissette also sent an e-mail to Patrick Moscaritolo, chief executive of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau — who had been instrumental in bringing “Top Chef” to Boston — asking him to “not talk with ‘Top Chef’ going forward,” according to Kelly’s report.


Walsh said in a statement Monday night that “this report answers many of the questions that had been raised . . . Brian Kelly was given unlimited access to City Hall, and I am very confident in the results of his review.”

A city spokeswoman said separately that Walsh “was happy to participate in the show, and he would do it again. He will consider appearing on any medium that will bring positive publicity to the city.”

According to Kelly’s report, Walsh was excited when he learned in April 2014 that “Top Chef” wanted to film in the city, seeing it as an “opportunity to promote and garner publicity for the city and its culinary scene.”

Then in June, three weeks after the mayor filmed the Museum of Science segment, Brissette learned that the Teamsters had been protesting the show and regretted that he had not been able to alert the mayor.

Brissette notified Joseph Rull, then the chief of operations for the mayor, who “expressed concern that the mayor’s appearance on ‘Top Chef’ could negatively affect his reputation with labor, one of his chief constituencies,” the report said.

Questioned by Kelly, Walsh said he expressed interest in “looking into what his options were with respect to his own appearance” on the show. Walsh later contacted O’Brien with a “courtesy call” to alert him to his appearance on the show, and O’Brien did not seem angry.


“Given this conversation, and O’Brien’s apparent lack of concern, the mayor did not believe that his appearance would lead to any negative political fallout,” the report stated. “They did not discuss ‘Top Chef’ again after their call.”

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.