Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Teamsters Not Guilty in ‘Top Chef’ Extortion Trial

The four Teamsters members who crashed the filming of the “Top Chef” television show at a restaurant in Milton in 2014 were acquitted Tuesday of all criminal charges in a case that was closely followed by the entertainment industry and organized labor.

The verdict from the jury of nine women and three men was announced in US District Court in Boston around 11 a.m. Tuesday, prompting bear hugs and backslapping between defense lawyers and defendants, smiles and tears of relief, and at least one prayer of thanks.

“Oh, my God!” cried out one woman as the acquittals were announced. “Thank you, Jesus!”

The Teamsters — Daniel Redmond, 49; John Fidler, 53; Robert Cafarelli, 47; and Michael Ross, 63 — were each acquitted of a single count of conspiracy to extort and a single count of attempted extortion. They are members of the Charlestown-based Teamsters Local 25.

US District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock, who presided over the trial, which explored the line between lawful union advocacy and menacing criminal activity, urged the defendants to pay closer attention to legal and physical boundaries in future labor action. “I would encourage the defendants to think long and hard . . . about approaching boundaries,’’ he said from the bench.

As he left the courthouse, Cafarelli said that when he was standing in the courtroom, waiting for the verdict to be announced, his heart was racing, but his mind was blank. Asked by a reporter for his reaction to having faced criminal charges, he replied in a sarcastic tone, “I’m thrilled I went through the process.” He then walked away, saying as he went, “I want to call my kids. That’s what I want to do.”

The case included testimony over a week from 17 witnesses, including “Top Chef” celebrity host Padma Lakshmi and judge Gail Simmons, who described feeling terrified and possibly being physically assaulted as they arrived at the Steel & Rye restaurant where the Teamsters were waiting.

“One guy came up, was coming toward the car, and he seemed really mad. They all seemed heated up,” Lakshmi told jurors. “I felt he was bullying me. I felt he was saying, ‘I might hit you.’ . . . I was just petrified and wanted it to be over.”

None of the defendants testified on their own behalf, but defense attorneys said in closing arguments that while the Teamsters might have used rough language, or behavior that might have seemed threatening, their actions were legal under federal law.

“There is a recognition that the Teamsters have the right to protest. . . . It doesn’t help anybody to have a production company come in to town, take away [union] jobs,’’ said defense attorney Oscar Cruz Jr.

The trial also generated attention on the administration of Mayor Martin J. Walsh as at least three witnesses testified that a top Walsh aide sought to withhold city permits for “Top Chef” unless the show hired union members.

The show began to film in Milton after two Boston restaurants canceled their participation following a tip from City Hall’s tourism chief, Kenneth Brissette, that the union would picket, according to testimony and court records.

Brissette and another aide, Timothy Sullivan, face extortion charges in a separate case alleging that they threatened to revoke permits for the Boston Calling music festival because organizers would not hire union members. They are set to go on trial in January, and the two have been on paid leave since their arrest last year.

Walsh has declined to answer questions about that case or the allegations made against Brissette in the “Top Chef” trial.

The jury started deliberations Thursday. In an unusual twist Monday afternoon, the forewoman sent a note to Woodlock reporting that one juror did not believe in the constitutional principle that people are innocent of a crime until proven guilty.

“We have a juror who is assuming guilt over innocence,’’ the jury forewoman wrote. “We are not sure how to go on from here. Any suggestions would be helpful.”

Woodlock, in his written response, emphasized the meaning of the presumption of innocence in American courts. “It is a cardinal principle of our system of justice that every person is presumed innocent unless and until his guilt is established beyond a reasonable doubt from evidence properly introduced and admitted at trial,” Woodlock wrote. “Presumption is not a mere formality, it is a matter of the utmost importance.”

Woodlock told jurors he would make their names publicly available Thursday. “You don’t have to talk to anybody at all. You were engaged in very tough discussions,’’ Woodlock said. “I leave it to you.”

Thanks to John R. Ellement, Milton J. Valencia and Maria Cramer.

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