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Prosecution, defense rest in ‘Top Chef’ case

Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi left the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse on Monday.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

A federal jury could begin deliberating the fate of four Teamsters members charged with using strong-arm tactics in an alleged attempt to extort the “Top Chef” television show as soon as Thursday, after prosecutors rested their case Tuesday.

Defense attorneys for the four men did not call any witnesses Tuesday, bringing a sudden end to a trial that has been marked by allegations of strong-arming by the union members and interference by a City Hall official.

The proceedings peaked Monday with testimony from “Top Chef” celebrity host Padma Lakshmi, who told jurors she was petrified in June 2014 when the Teamsters members surrounded her car and yelled profanities at her and her driver.

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The four Teamsters — John Fidler, 53; Daniel Redmond, 49; Robert Cafarelli, 47; and Michael Ross, 62 — are charged with conspiracy and attempted extortion, and face up to 20 years in prison. They represented the Charlestown-based Teamsters Local 25.

Prosecutors say they used rough-house tactics and attempted to disrupt filming for the “Top Chef” show at the Steel & Rye restaurant in Milton in June 2014 in an attempt to extort jobs as drivers with union-scale wages.

The defendants argued that they were exercising their rights as union members to picket for a union contract and asked the judge to dismiss the case. US District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock is considering the request, which is routine in criminal matters. But prosecutors argued that the Teamsters demanded jobs from a show that was nonunion, that the driving jobs were already filled, and that the Teamsters’ services were not wanted.

The trial has also put an uncomfortable spotlight on the administration of Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who is seeking reelection this year. At least three witnesses testified that Walsh’s tourism chief, Kenneth Brissette, sought to withhold permits for “Top Chef” unless the show hired union members. The mayor has not commented on the allegations, citing the pending investigation.

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The trial began last week, and prosecutors called 17 witnesses. The last witness to testify was Sandee Birdsong, head of culinary production for the television show, and she told jurors she saw Teamsters members yelling profanities at crew members, including Lakshmi, and attempting to provoke crew members into a fight.

Birdsong told jurors she was aware that Teamsters members would be protesting the show’s filming — she had been asked by a separate union representative from California to stage a walkout in support of the Teamsters’ cause — but she refused. She also said she had not seen a picket like this before — the Teamsters used rough-house, intimidating tactics and did not hold signs or pass out fliers promoting their cause, which would have been typical of a picket, she told jurors.

“Most people were really scared. . . . Those who weren’t scared were just surprised because they hadn’t experienced anything like this,” Birdsong said.

At least two witnesses, including Birdsong, told jurors during the trial that they sought help from the Milton officers, who had been stationed at the restaurant for the filming, but the officers did not respond. One witness said it appeared as if the police officers were friendly with the Teamsters members.

Defense attorneys had previously suggested they would call two Milton police officers who witnessed the Teamsters’ run-in with “Top Chef” crew members, in an apparent effort to show that the Milton police officers did not believe at the time that the Teamsters’ conduct constituted a crime.

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Prosecutors indicated, however, that they would call a deputy chief from the Milton Police Department as a rebuttal witness, and defense attorneys did not call the police officers.

Once the jury had left for the day Tuesday, US District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock told lawyers that he would tell jurors Thursday that they should hold no judgment on the Milton police officers’ action, or inaction, saying officers had no involvement in enforcing the federal laws that are charged in this case.

Woodlock, who said he will finalize his instructions to the jury after a Wednesday hearing, said he will outline the traditional definition of Hobbs Act extortion, which draws the line between union advocacy and criminal extortion.

Jurors will have to decide “whether or not there were threats that were designed to exact payments for wages for services that were superfluous, or unnecessary,” the judge said.


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