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E-mails detail effort to quell ‘Top Chef’ dispute

From left: James Rigato, Katie Weinner, Stacy Cogswell, and Joy Crump in an episode from the Boston season of “Top Chef.”David Moir/Bravo/File

The first e-mail from the film location scout arrived just after 10:30 on June 5, 2014, a Thursday night.

"As I predicted the Teamsters have found the film set and are really (upset)," the scout, Derek Cunningham, complained to a city official. "The phone calls to my cell have started. I know it's only going to get worse."

The e-mail landed in the inbox of Ken Brissette, the city's director of tourism, sports, and entertainment. It was how Brissette learned the "Top Chef" television show had been filming in Boston with nonunion workers. "I was not aware of that ugh," he wrote to Cunningham just before 8 a.m. the next day.


Later that evening, he added: "We are going to have to talk about this mess."

The exchange was part of a series of e-mails released to reporters this week in response to a public records request, and the missives show the behind-the-scenes efforts of city officials, Teamsters, and "Top Chef" producers to resolve a nasty labor dispute — one that eventually led to a federal indictment of five Teamsters in September, entangling the administration of Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who was elected with union support.

Walsh had been in office less than six months when the Teamsters dispute with "Top Chef" erupted. He was previously a labor leader who had been paid to advocate on behalf of the Teamsters and other unions. While serving as a state representative, he proposed legislation to benefit unions in binding arbitration judgments.

The Teamsters were accused of harassing and intimidating "Top Chef" crew members during a protest outside the Steel & Rye restaurant in Milton, in an alleged effort to extort jobs from the television show.

The indictment mentioned a City Hall employee — later identified as Brissette — who warned two Boston restaurants that the union would picket their locations if they hosted the show, leading to questions about whether Brissette was enmeshed in the labor dispute.


The Boston restaurants — the Omni Parker House and Menton — canceled their partnership with "Top Chef," forcing the show to scramble to find a location outside of Boston. That is when the show ended up in Milton.

A former federal prosecutor hired by the city to conduct an investigation concluded in a report released Monday that Brissette acted on his own to give the restaurants a courtesy "heads-up," and that neither he nor any other city employee was part of the Teamsters' alleged conspiracy to extort "Top Chef" producers.

But the investigator, Brian T. Kelly, who now is an attorney with the Boston law firm Nixon Peabody, did find a concerted effort by City Hall employees to preserve the administration's relationship with the Teamsters union, and several e-mails released this week showed the toll that relationship appeared to be taking on attracting film shoots.

At one point, a producer for the TV show, David O'Connell, wrote to Brissette: "It's unfortunate that we will most likely have to leave Boston early. As I said on our call, I'm from MA myself and it gives me no pleasure to say that I don't know when I'll be ably [sic] to bring another nonunion show to Boston while the threat if [sic] the Teamsters looms large."

Another "Top Chef" producer, Ellie Carbajal, wrote separately to Brissette: "Again, all we are trying to do is showcase Boston and didn't mean any harm."


Analysts said in interviews this week that the e-mails and Kelly's report underscore the fine line the Walsh administration has to straddle in preserving its pro-union image, while appearing business-friendly.

"As a general rule [for] the mayor, the city should be welcoming of all business opportunities that will help grow the local economy, and needs to make sure the decisions are in the best interest of the city and its taxpayers," said Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a fiscal watchdog funded by businesses and nonprofit institutions. "Union involvement should not be a litmus test to what is acceptable, [or] not acceptable, to Boston."

Peter N. Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College, said it is no surprise the Walsh administration would look to preserve its relationship with the Teamsters, but added the administration would have to calibrate how far that support should go.

"You have to be very careful in wielding power for City Hall, and when someone's using the mayor's name in a phone conversation, you have to be careful about that," he said. "There's a fine line between giving someone a heads-up and using the power of your position to achieve a goal."

Walsh attempted to revisit his earlier participation in a "Top Chef" filming upon learning the show had hired nonunion workers, according to the e-mails and Kelly's report.

On Monday, however, the mayor said through a spokeswoman that he supports the show and would appear again if it were to return to Boston. The spokeswoman added 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 employee disputes. The city will review attorney Kelly's report and look at best practices moving forward."


Cunningham, the television production scout who communicated with City Hall employees, was looking for a better understanding of the city's views on nonunion production companies at the time of the labor dispute. He quit working for "Top Chef" after allegedly being harassed by Teamsters, saying he agreed the producers should have hired union workers, and that he did not want to be involved in the dispute.

But he was looking to understand the city's policy moving forward, now that "Top Chef" had left the city.

"Though I've moved onto a union movie in Western MA, I would like to pass along any relevant info to those productions that might be very helpful to them in deciding where to go," he said. "I don't want the city or the production caught off guard again. Furthermore, I do not want to be caught in the middle."

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