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Witness at ‘Top Chef’ extortion trial testifies about shouted slurs

From left, the “Top Chef” cast in 2014: head judge Tom Colicchio, judge Gail Simmons, and hosts Padma Lakshmi and Andy Cohen.
From left, the “Top Chef” cast in 2014: head judge Tom Colicchio, judge Gail Simmons, and hosts Padma Lakshmi and Andy Cohen. Danny Moloshok/Reuters/File

In June 2014, Derek Cunningham, a location scout with more than a dozen years of experience, was drawing steady work in Boston’s humming motion picture industry, helping major studios like Columbia Pictures and Sony figure out the best places to film.

But it was a job he took with a reality TV cooking show that would undo his career and drive him from the state, Cunningham testified Tuesday. That spring, Teamsters from Local 25 in Charlestown, irate that Bravo’s “Top Chef” had not hired them to drive production vehicles, became so aggressive that Cunningham said he quit the show and began fearing for his safety.

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“I placed two kitchen knives — one under my bed and one near my door,” Cunningham told a jury Tuesday, the first day of testimony in the federal trial against four Teamsters accused of trying to intimidate the staff of the hit program into hiring union labor. “I was fairly paranoid something would happen to me.”

Cunningham was the second witness to testify against John Fidler, Daniel Redmond, Robert Cafarelli, and Michael Ross, members of Local 25 who are charged with conspiracy to extort and aiding and abetting.

The case centers on whether the alleged tactics of the men rose to the level of criminal conduct, and threatens to cast a critical light on Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, a former labor leader who is up for reelection and who has seen two City Hall officials indicted in a similar case for attempting to withhold permits unless organizers hired union workers.

Those officials are not charged in the case and have pleaded not guilty. But one of those officials, Kenneth Brissette, the city’s tourism chief, was mentioned Tuesday during the direct examination of Cunningham, who described an exchange of e-mails and phone calls with Brissette about the Teamsters on June 6, 2014.

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The night before, Redmond, one of the defendants, had screamed at him outside the Revere Hotel in Boston, where “Top Chef” was shooting, and said it was his fault the show had not hired Teamsters, Cunningham said.

When Cafarelli called him later that night, Cunningham said he told him he planned on quitting the show.

“He stated to me that that was the smartest decision of the year,” Cunningham said.

After Cunningham e-mailed Brissette that the Teamsters were furious, Brissette replied: “No shooting until I speak with Bravo on this,” Cunningham testified.

Brissette and Cunningham later spoke by phone about permits that Cunningham had gotten approval for.

“He told me to not give the permits to the show,” Cunningham said under direct examination by Assistant US Attorney Laura Kaplan.

Asked why he quit the show, Cunningham replied, “I just didn’t want to deal with it anymore. . . . I wanted to get myself away from the situation as quickly as possible.”

Cunningham said he continued working sporadically in the film industry after that, but it became harder to get hired. One prospective employer “told me that he was hesitant in hiring me because of any potential repercussions he would receive from the Teamsters,” he said.

His testimony marked the first time a witness described City Hall’s involvement with the show. The exchanges between Cunningham and Brissette were laid out in an 11-page report issued in December 2015 by an independent investigator, who found no criminal wrongdoing by any city employees but determined there was a concerted effort to preserve the administration’s relationship with the local labor union.

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The city permits were eventually issued to “Top Chef,” but the restaurants that had agreed to host the show canceled. Producers moved filming to Steel & Rye restaurant in Milton.

Erica Ross, a co-executive producer of the show who was at the restaurant that day, described a tense scene with Teamsters trying to get inside the restaurant, shouting “scab” at “Top Chef” crew members, and lobbing sexist and racist insults at female producers.

“I’d never seen or witnessed or been a part of anything like that before,” she said. “It was baffling.”

Under cross-examination, she acknowledged that one crew member had to be taken away after he engaged with the defendants at the restaurant. Oscar Cruz Jr., who is representing Redmond, asked Ross about her own behavior that day, noting that she recorded a video of the confrontation with the Teamsters and filmed one of them telling her, “That’s pretty intimidating.”

“Is that why you’re shaking?” Ross asked the Teamster in the video.

“You were engaging them in conversation in order to try and provoke them, right?” Cruz asked Ross.

“No,” Ross replied.

Lawyers for the Teamsters said their clients were merely exercising their right to picket for driving jobs that were being performed by inexperienced production assistants.

“This is the life of America. People have a right to organize and demand things from employers,” said Kevin Barron, Ross’s lawyer. “There was no extortion, no crime, no conspiracy . . . Just five middle-aged truck drivers doing a picket.”

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It was “Top Chef” crew members who escalated the incident in Milton, they said.

“The narrative of the chest-bumping and aggressive behavior is noise,” said W. Jamiel Allen, another lawyer for Redmond. “It was static, built on a house of cards as real as a reality TV show itself.”

But Kaplan said the men conspired to scare and threaten “Top Chef” producers until they caved in to their demands. “That is the crime of extortion,” she said. “This case is not about picketing.”


Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Maria Cramer can be reached at maria.cramer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeMCramer.