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US judge allows ‘Top Chef’ complaint

Robert Cafarelli, (left) a member of The Teamsters Local 25 walked out of the Moakley Courthouse last September after his arraignment in the “Top Chef” case.
Robert Cafarelli, (left) a member of The Teamsters Local 25 walked out of the Moakley Courthouse last September after his arraignment in the “Top Chef” case.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

A federal magistrate judge has refused to dismiss extortion charges brought against Teamsters members who sought jobs from the “Top Chef” television show — a case with ties to City Hall — in the latest blow to the union members’ claims that their strong-arm tactics were legally protected.

The ruling means that the case will move forward and could be heard by a jury.

US Magistrate Judge Marianne B. Bowler said in a 37-page ruling on Thursday that the facts of the case as laid out by prosecutors describe an illegal extortion scheme. Prosecutors alleged in a 2015 indictment that the five Teamsters members attempted to extort jobs from the “Top Chef” show in June 2014 by threatening to disrupt the show’s filming at a restaurant in Milton. The Teamsters allegedly showed up at the filming, chest-bumped and threatened crew members, and blocked delivery trucks. At least nine production vehicles had their tires slashed.

The union members claimed that they were engaging in a constitutionally protected right to picket, but Bowler said they may have committed extortion by using threats to demand unnecessary jobs from a nonunion company. The show had told the Teamsters that the jobs they demanded were already filled, the judge noted.

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Bowler said a jury will ultimately decide on the facts, but that the indictment “depicts conduct in the form of threats used to exact payments in the form of wages for unwanted, unnecessary, and superfluous services that is a violation of the Hobbs Act.”

As the indictment alleges, she said, “the services were superfluous because [the “Top Chef” production] already had workers engaged and performing the services and it was being forced to hire additional union workers to perform additional, duplicative services in order to avoid a shutdown of the production.”

The case became a scandal for City Hall when authorities disclosed that a high-ranking official in the administration of Mayor Martin J. Walsh had warned two restaurants in Boston that the union would picket if they participated in the show. The restaurants then canceled their involvement in the show.

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The official, Kenneth Brissette, the city’s head of tourism, was not charged in the Teamsters case. But he and another city official, Timothy Sullivan, were later indicted for allegedly threatening to withhold permits for the annual Boston Calling music festival in 2014 if festival organizers did not hire union workers. Prosecutors said that Brissette had made a similar threat to the “Top Chef” producers.

Bowler’s ruling is the latest blow to local union members’ claims that they have the right to use pickets to seek jobs from even nonunion companies.

Over the last two years, three other Teamsters members were convicted in separate trials in Boston of similar accusations, for threatening to use pickets to disrupt events staged by nonunion companies.

The three Teamsters are serving prison sentences, though the federal appeals court in Boston is reviewing the cases. The appeals court could be the first in the country to rule on whether such cases constitute extortion.

One of the defendants in the “Top Chef” case, Mark Harrington, has agreed to plead guilty. A hearing is scheduled for Sept. 7.


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