Teamsters Found Not Guilty in Bizarre 'Top Chef' Extortion Case

The trial pitted producers of a popular TV show against old-school union guys in Boston, and the verdict looks like a boon for organized labor in America.
August 15, 2017, 9:11pm
Left Image: Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images. Right Image: Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

After a high-profile trial testing the limits of America's labor laws, four teamsters from Boston's Local 25 accused of hurling slurs and threats at the staff of reality TV's Top Chef were found not guilty of extortion in federal court on Tuesday.

Jurors indulged in some 19 hours of deliberation over the course of four days before the nine women and three men deemed John Fidler, 52, Daniel Redmond, 48, Michael Ross, 62, and Robert Cafarelli, 46, not guilty on all counts. If convicted, the men would have faced up to 20 years in prison. A fifth Teamster, Mark Harrington, 62, actually pleaded guilty to extortion charges last year and was sentenced to six months home confinement, two years probation, and $34,123 in fines and restitution.

"This is a verdict that require[d] a jury to separate the wheat from the chaff," Harvard Law professor Nancy Gertner said.

The former federal judge found the verdict "remarkable" because, in this case, "there [was] a risk that a jury [would] be offended" by the Teamsters' ugly language and neglect to look at "the purpose" of their actions—ostensibly designed to bolster organized labor and win work for their union—"in a careful way."

The controversial charges hinged on whether or not the Teamsters' actions amounted to protesting the non-union show, or something a lot worse

The saga began on June 9, 2014, when producers of the show tried to film part of Season 12 at Boston's historic Omni Parker House Hotel. Top Chef being a non-union show, members from Teamsters Local 25 threatened to picket, and hotel employees, either spooked or perhaps sympathetic, told producers they couldn't film there.

Unable to find a Boston venue game to put up with inevitable protests, Top Chef left the city for the suburbs, landing at Steel & Rye in the wealthy town of Milton.

But the teamsters were ready and waiting for them.

Prosecutors called 17 witnesses who testified that the union activists used misogynistic, racist, and homophobic language, placed hands on production vehicles, and even slashed tires. The star witness was the host of the show, Padma Lakshmi, an actress and model formerly married to Salman Rushdie.

Lakshmi testified she could "smell" Fidler as he approached her window.

"One guy came up to the car. I had the windows down… He rested his arm on the door when the window was down," she said on the stand. According to her, Fidler then said, "'Oh looky here, what a pretty face,' or 'What a shame about that pretty face.'"

Lakshmi said her heart was pounding, "I felt he was saying, 'I might hit you,'" she testified.

Her testimony was crucial to the case because extortion charges typically require prosecutors to show that the victim experienced fear.

As the trial wound down, the defense actually seemed to be in trouble after it called zero witnesses. But the Teamsters' attorneys mostly made their case to the jury via closing arguments, when they attempted to scrub away the reality TV drama from the case and hone in at union's rights and underlying legal protections. "Really, what's going on here is reality television doesn't want to be unionized. It's got its own business model and doesn't want to change," Ross's attorney, Kevin Barron, told the jury.

This case awoke tensions between the labor movement and the federal government that have dogged unions for more than a century.

US district court judge Douglas P. Woodlock explained at trial that the issues essentially boiled down to a 1973 Supreme Court ruling, United States v. Enmons. That case centered on a protest of Gulf States Utilities Company for higher wages and benefits by members of Local 2286, a branch of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. At least one of them fired a "high-powered rifle" into three company transformers, draining them of oil and causing one to explode.

The government charged the workers with extortion under the Hobbs Act, just like the Teamsters in the Top Chef case. But the Supreme Court actually ruled in favor of the trigger-happy union workers back in the 70s, 4–3.

"The union had a right to disrupt the business of the employer by lawfully striking for higher wages. Acts of violence occurring during a lawful strike and resulting in damage to persons or property are undoubtedly punishable under State law. To punish persons for such acts of violence was not the purpose of the Hobbs Act," Justice Potter Stewart wrote in the decision for the majority.

There was a catch that left hope for a conviction here: Stewart wrote that the violent antics of labor unions would not be covered and would in fact be extortion if "the wages sought by violent acts are wages to be paid for unneeded or unwanted services, or for no services at all."

That standard meant the prosecution in the Chef case had to prove Teamsters were threatening the staff to "exact payments for wages for services that were superfluous, or unnecessary," as Judge Woodlock put it.

To that end, prosecutors tried to argue the Teamsters were not acting on behalf of their union but just themselves.

"This was not a picket, no matter how many times defense attorneys used that word in this courtroom," Assistant US Attorney Kristina Barclay said Thursday in closing arguments. "This was four men threatening to cause harm to the Top Chef show in order to get wages, jobs—and that is extortion.

The Teamsters were ultimately able to come across more as working guys fighting for their cause than mafioso caricatures. In one possibly pivotal moment, an NBC executive testified he had tried to pay the Teamsters to make them go away, only for them to refuse.

Not that the verdict came easily. On Monday afternoon, the jury forewoman wrote to Woodlock, "We have a juror who is assuming guilt over innocence. We are not sure how to go on from here. Any suggestions would be helpful."

The judge instructed the jury again to look at the facts of the case over their emotions. That plea apparently did the job.

After the verdict, Peter Moser, a Boston labor attorney who negotiates on behalf of employers at Hirsch Roberts Weinstein, LLP, couldn't help wondering: "Is it really OK to go around slashing tires and threatening to harm women?"

"In an ideal world the type of behavior that these guys engaged in would be accounted for," Moster told me.

Still, the attorney does not believe the Teamsters' actions were criminal under the Hobbs Act, and worried that had there been a conviction, the case might have drawn a strange line for other unions determined to picket in the future.

The Top Chef trial concluded ahead of another case in which two of Boston mayor Marty Walsh's aides are also charged with conspiracy to extort under the Hobbs Act for allegedly strong-arming a music festival into hiring union labor. That case is expected to go to trial in January.

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