The AFL-CIO is seeking the dismissal of criminal charges against four Boston Teamsters who terrorized the cast and crew of Top Chef, arguing in court that their prosecution could have a chilling effect on all union protests.
Five members of Boston Teamsters Local 25 were indicted for extortion last year after Deadline revealed that about a dozen of them had threatened and intimidated the show’s cast and crew members while picketing the non-union reality show as it filmed at a local restaurant.
Patrick Harrington, the local’s former secretary-treasurer and second-highest-ranking officer, pleaded guilty last month to a federal attempted extortion charge, and four others are awaiting trial. The AFL-CIO, however, argued in a court filing that prosecuting them will dampen lawful picking activities nationwide.
“Few, if any, union activists would take to the picket line if a U.S. Attorney could second-guess their motivations months later and cause their lives to crumble and their financial well-being to evaporate,” AFL-CIO attorney Paul Kelly said in a motion filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Boston. “If the superseding indictment is not dismissed, union members engaged in lawful peaceful picketing will be subject to the threat of felony prosecution where, as here, some other party participants in the concerted activity either exceed the bounds of good taste or otherwise engage in picket line misconduct.”
The judge in the case and the FBI agent who oversaw the investigation disagree. “The AFL-CIO’s concern that this prosecution will chill recognitional activity or organizational activity such as picketing is overstated,” said U.S. District Court Judge Marianne Bowler.
“While unions have the right to advocate on behalf of their members, they do not have the right to use violence and intimidation,” said Joseph Bonavolonta, acting special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston field division. “The strong-arm tactics the FBI has seen in this case are egregious, and our investigation is far from over. [The] arrests should send a message to those who think they can get away with manipulating the system that they better think twice.”
As first reported here, about a dozen members of the Teamsters local had set up a picket line in June 2014 outside the Steel & Rye restaurant in Milton, just outside of Boston, where the cooking competition show was filming. When the show’s host Padma Lakshmi arrived at the site, one of the Teamsters rushed her car and screamed, “We’re gonna bash that pretty face in, you f*cking whore!”
“She was scared,” said a Top Chef crew member who witnessed the incident. “He was screaming at her aggressively and violently.”
The Teamsters kept at it for hours, raining down racist, sexist and homophobic threats and slurs as staffers entered and left the set. Jenn Levy, Bravo’s SVP Production, wasn’t spared either. Arriving at the restaurant in her black SUV, she soon found herself running a gauntlet of misogynist vitriol. “She got out of her car in front of the location and quickly ran through the picket line,” a source said. “They were yelling: ‘You bitch! You slut! We’re gonna get you!’ It went on like that all day.”
John King, Milton’s Deputy Police Chief, told Deadline that the Teamsters were “threatening, heckling and harassing.” The first officer on the scene, he said, had to call for backup after the Teamsters “gave the officer trouble.” Reading from the police report, he said the Teamsters were “hostile, swearing, and refusing to let people come in and out. Officers repeatedly tried to de-escalate the situation.” When more police arrived, the Teamsters went to the show’s hospitality tent and “harassed the crew there.” When the officers went there, King said, “A group of them slashed the tires on 14 different cars owned by the crew.”
The ongoing prosecution might not chill the free speech of lawful picketers, but it could well chill the speech of those who would threaten to smash in the faces of cast and crew members working on nonunion productions.