Padma Lakshmi, the host of "Top Chef"

Credit: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

LISTEN: Jury Deliberations Begin In Top Chef Extortion Trial

August 11, 2017

Susan Kaplan: Jurors are now deliberating in the federal trial of four local Teamsters who are charged with extortion. Prosecutors claim they tried to pressure the TV show "Top Chef" into hiring union labor when the show was filming in and around Boston three years ago. Joining us on the line is Isaiah Thompson who's been covering the trial. He's in front of the Moakley Federal Courthouse. Hi, Isaiah.

Isaiah Thompson: Hi Susan.

Susan Kaplan: So, first of all, can you go over the sequence of events that led to these charges being brought against these four men?

Isaiah Thompson: Yeah. So in a nutshell in 2014, "Top Chef" comes to town to film their Boston season. And unlike a lot of other movies and some television productions here, they chose not to hire union labor. The Teamsters caught wind of this and the Teamsters were not happy. There was some back and forth, but ultimately, "Top Chef" heard that there was going to be a picket or protest of their show at the Omni Parker. They switch locations at the last minute to a site in Milton, and that's where this sort of notorious incident in the case happens. They're filming, they're approached by a group of Teamsters including the defendants, and then this kind of chaotic scene takes place. So there are different accounts of this, but the Teamsters were protesting, ... hurling extremely vulgar language and offensive language at crew members. There was some testimony that at some point. Some of them may have tried to enter the premises without permission. At one point, one "Top Chef" crew member finds the tires of "Top Chef" vehicles have been slashed, and there's another moment in which "Top Chef" host Padma Lakshmi arrives in a car, [and] is blocked by Teamsters, [and] there's more profanity.

Susan Kaplan: Now, just to get this straight, who are the defendants in this case?

Isaiah Thompson: The defendants are Daniel Redmond, John Fidler, Robert Cafarelli and Michael Ross. They are four members of the Teamsters Local 25, which is based in Charlestown.

Susan Kaplan: There doesn't seem to be any question that the defendants used, as you're describing, pretty awful language, including racist and homophobic slurs in dealing with members of the "Top Chef" staff, but as you've reported, they're not being charged with harassment or disturbing the peace?

Isaiah Thompson: That's right, and that's what's really central to this case. The defendants have been charged with criminal attempted extortion and conspiracy to commit extortion. What that means is that the government has to prove that this went beyond a really unpleasant protest or even sort of harassment behavior, but that the defendants were doing this as part of a concerted effort to use intimidation, to use the threat of physical violence, to force "Top Chef" to hire union labor, namely the Teamsters.

Susan Kaplan: How has the defense countered those claims?

Isaiah Thompson: So the defense -- it's interesting -- after five days of witnesses for the prosecution, the defense for all four of the men rested without presenting any witnesses of their own. And essentially what they were saying with this to the jury was, you may have heard a lot of unpleasant things here, but you have not heard proof of criminal extortion; you have not heard proof of what the government is claiming here. In their closing remarks, lawyers for the defendants basically said, look, what you had here was you had a group of union members staging a protest, because they were upset that "Top Chef" hadn’t hired union labor, and in protesting, if that's indeed what they were doing, is within their rights. [It] is within their free speech rights, and it's protected under labor laws.

Susan Kaplan: The only people on trial right now are these four Teamsters. But this case could have implications for the case of two Boston City Hall aides who were indicted in a separate case?

Isaiah Thompson: Yeah, that's right. And you know, I want to be very careful here and emphasize again -- the only people on trial right now are the four defendants in this case. But, this case does potentially touch on the case of two city hall aides who were indicted, also charged with attempted extortion on behalf of unions. There was some testimony presented in this trial that indicated that Kenneth Brissette -- who is one of the two city all aides indicted in a separate case -- that Kenneth Brissette was involved in some capacity in this dispute. One witness testified that Brissette had told him not to give permits to "Top Chef" after this labor dispute erupted.

Susan Kaplan: OK, thanks for joining us, Isaiah.

Isaiah Thompson: Thanks for having me.

Susan Kaplan. That’s WGBH Radio's Isaiah Thompson joining us from outside Boston's Moakley Federal Courthouse. He's been covering the trial of those four Teamsters charged with extortion for allegedly trying to pressure the TV show "Top Chef" into hiring union labor while it filmed in and around Boston. 

 


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