UPDATED with statement from U.S. Attorney: After deliberating for more than 19 hours, a jury has acquitted all four BostonTeamsters who were accused of attempting to extort driving jobs from the producers of Top Chef three years ago. The not-guilty verdicts come a day after the jury forewoman sent a note to U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock that one of the jurors “is assuming guilt over innocence” and that the jurors “are not sure how to proceed from here.”
The jury of nine women and three men were deciding the fate of Local 25 Teamsters John Fidler, Daniel Redmond, Robert Cafarelli and Michael Ross, who were charged with attempting to shake down the show for unwanted, unneeded and superfluous services under the threat of violence and the fear of economic harm. Defense attorneys counter that the men’s actions on the picket line that day in June 2014 were part of a legitimate labor dispute.
As first reported by Deadline, the Teamsters had set up a picket line on June 10, 2014, outside the Steel & Rye restaurant in Milton, a suburb of Boston, where the show was filming. When Top Chef host Padma Lakshmitried to cross their picket line, several Teamsters rushed her minivan, and according to testimony during the trial, one of the Teamsters leaned into her passenger-side window “so close she could smell him” and threatened to “smash her pretty face in.” Lakshmi testified that she was terrified and thought he was going to punch her. The Teamsters kept at it for hours, showering cast and crew with racist, sexist and homophobic slurs, and slashing the tires on nine production vehicles.
Even so, police were present and made no arrests, and the jury decided that no federal crimes had been committed either. Click here to watch a brief NSFW video of the incident that was shown in court this week.
“We are disappointed in today’s verdict,” said acting U.S. Attorney William Weinreb. “The government believed, and continues to believe, that the conduct in this case crossed the line and constituted a violation of federal law. The defendants’ conduct was an affront to all of the hard-working and law-abiding members of organized labor. We will continue to aggressively prosecute extortion in all its forms to ensure that Boston remains a safe and welcoming place to do business.”
The defense team didn’t put on a single witness, but in closing arguments, their lawyers told the jury there was no evidence that the accused had knowingly tried to extort the show for no-show jobs and that their actions that day on the picket line were part of a legitimate labor dispute. The proof of that, they argued, came from one of the prosecution’s own witnesses, Bravo executive David O’Connell, who offered to pay them just to go away. “I didn’t want them on the set,” he testified. “I offered to pay them double to go away.” The Teamsters, however, “rejected” that offer, he testified. “They wanted to be paid under a legitimate collective bargaining agreement. … I knew they wanted to get into reality television.”
In the end, that might have won the case for the defendants. “If the Teamsters had this bad purpose — to extort in order to get no-show jobs — that would have been the place for it to happen,” defense attorney Kevin Barron said in his closing argument. “But it didn’t. It was money offered, money refused.” And that, he said, is “the gaping hole in the government’s case.”
O’Connell’s testimony about offering to pay the Teamsters double to go away “was one of a handful of surprises that came out in our favor,” Carmine Lepore, attorney for Cafarelli, told Deadline after the verdict. “That’s traditional extortion, but it couldn’t have been more clear that what they were seeking by refusing that offer were legitimate jobs.”
And that clearly undercut the prosecution’s theory that the defendants had been trying to force the production company, Magical Elves, to hire Teamsters to perform superfluous services – a key element to the attempted extortion charge.
Lepore said the jury “got it right. The government didn’t have anything to support their theory of extortion. The linchpin was whether they were seeking additional services or replacement services” by pressuring the company to replace nonunion drivers with union drivers, which is perfectly legal.
“From the onset,” he said of the defense team, “we were scratching our heads, wondering, ‘Why are we here? How is this a federal crime? What do they have besides some name calling and bad behavior?’”
The four men had been charged with attempted extortion and conspiracy to extort. If convicted, each had faced a maximum of 20 years in prison. A fifth Teamster, Mark Harrington, the local’s former secretary-treasurer, pleaded guilty to the same charges in December and was sentenced to six months of home confinement.
Erik Pedersen contributed to this report.