Teamsters Cleared in ‘Top Chef’ Extortion Trial

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By Aaron Nicodemus

Four Teamsters members were found not guilty Aug. 15 of charges of extortion stemming from their actions on a picket line outside a taping of Bravo’s “Top Chef” show in 2014.

A jury of nine women and three men announced its decision Aug. 15 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts ( U.S. v. Fidler, D. Mass., No. 1:15-cr-10300, jury verdict 8/15/17 ).

The men, John Fidler, Daniel Redmond, Robert Cafarelli, and Michael Ross, are all members of Teamsters Local 25.

The four were accused of trying to force the show to hire union drivers when they threatened violence and blocked vehicles entering the shooting location in Milton, Mass. The men engaged in chest-bumping crew members and shouting lewd, homophobic, and racist threats at cast and crew members, according to the indictment.

Celebrity host Padma Lakshmi testified during the trial that she was “terrified” by the men who picketed the Steel & Rye restaurant during the show’s taping.

Conduct Was Lawful

During the 10-day trial, witnesses said that production assistants drove trucks filled with equipment to various job sites. The Teamsters wanted those driver jobs to be performed by union members and were picketing to change the producers’ minds on the issue, Redmond’s attorney, Oscar Cruz, wrote in a pretrial motion. The producers had informed the union that they had hired all the workers they needed.

“The Teamsters’ purpose was always to organize driving jobs for union members,” Kevin Barron, Ross’ attorney, said in a statement to Bloomberg BNA. “The evidence showed that the Teamsters had no corrupt purpose and that there was, therefore, no crime.”

Prosecutors argued that the conduct of the union members that day went beyond legally protected picket line activity and crossed the line into extortion and conspiracy under the Hobbs Act. That federal law criminalizes acts interfering with interstate commerce by extortion.

Line Was Crossed, Prosecutor Maintains

Acting U.S. Attorney William Weinreb expressed disappointment in the verdict.

“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,” he wrote in a statement posted on the office’s website.

The men faced up to 20 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines.

Big and Burly but Not Guilty

The defendants’ conduct did not reach the level of extortion under the Hobbs Act, Paul F. Kelly, a partner at the Boston firm of Segal Roitman LLP, argued in a brief he wrote on behalf of the AFL-CIO. He called the jury’s decision a “victory.”

The crux of the case was what the Teamsters were seeking, he said. In this case, they wanted jobs as drivers, or at least jobs for other union members, he said.

“If you demand payment, or a no-show job, to me that’s the interesting issue in the case,” Kelly told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 15. “I know the optics of the case were bad, these big burly guys saying bad things. But it was also really unfortunate that they were facing 20 years for things that happen on picket lines all the time.”

Steven A. Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, said the verdict confirms the right to protest under the law.

“I do not condone any behavior that spreads intolerance, violence or hate,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “But the jury understood that the Hobbs Act—a statute meant to apply to robbery and extortion—has no relevance to a picket line.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Aaron Nicodemus in Boston at anicodemus@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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