Jurors in the trial of four Boston Teamsters charged with trying to extort jobs at a Top Chef location shoot will be instructed Thursday not to infer anything from the fact that local police made no arrests during a raucous labor dispute three years ago.
The case involves an incident outside the Steel & Rye restaurant in suburban Milton in which picketing Teamsters allegedly slashed the tires of multiple production vehicles; threatened the show’s cast and crew, including host Padma Laskhmi; and showered them with racist, sexist and homophobic taunts. (Click here to watch NSFW video of the incident that was shown in court.) In a hearing today to finalize jury instructions ahead of Thursday’s closing arguments, U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock told prosecutors and defense attorneys that the lack of arrests “does not give absolution for violations of federal criminal law” — specifically, the crime of attempting to extort unwanted, unnecessary and superfluous services through threats of violence or the fear of economic harm.
Attorneys for defendants John Fidler, Daniel Redmond, Robert Cafarelli and Michael Ross rested their case Tuesday without calling a single witness. But during cross-examination of prosecution witnesses, they tried to show that the picketing that day in June 2014 was part of a legitimate labor dispute and that the lack of arrests was proof that Milton police didn’t think the defendants — all members of Boston Teamsters Local 25 — had done anything wrong. Indeed, two prosecution witnesses testified that police officers told them that the Teamsters were acting within their rights and “knew what they were doing.” Federal labor law allows unions to picket employers, and to try to harm them financially by withholding services and urging others not to cross their picket lines. Federal criminal law, however, prohibits unions and their members from making threats of violence to achieve their ends.
In an elegant colloquy with the prosecutors and defense lawyers, Woodlock explained that “the eye of the needle” of the case is whether the defendants, and each of them separately, violated the Hobbs Act, which makes it a federal crime to extort or conspire to extort property — in this case, wages — through threats of physical violence.
Defense lawyers argued today that the case is really about four men, who at the time already were employed on the film Black Mass when it was shooting in Boston and were trying to get jobs not for themselves, but for their fellow Teamsters as part of Local 25’s efforts to unionize the non-union reality TV industry in and around Boston. They argued that the defendants simply were trying to get the producers to hire a few of their union brothers and sisters to replace a few nonunion production assistants who, in addition to their many other duties, drove the show’s production vehicles.
But prosecutors argued and presented evidence to the contrary, saying the defendants were trying to get the producers to hire additional drivers, not replacement drivers, and used threats of physical violence and economic harm to force the show to hire more drivers than they wanted or needed.
“I’m thinking of this as an additional services case,” the judge said. “I’m telling the jury that the government has to prove that additional services were sought through threats of physical violence or economic harm, and that if they didn’t prove it, they lose.”
Redmond’s attorney, Oscar Cruz Jr., who will lead off the defense team’s closing arguments, told the judge that there is evidence and testimony showing that Top Chef hired its production assistant/drivers on a rotating basis and that anyone of them — all of whom were at-will employees who could be let go without cause — could have been replaced by a Teamster driver.
The judge, however, said he doesn’t see it that way. “You may argue,” he said, “that it’s a one-for-one situation — hire this guy instead of that guy — but the evidence seems to support alternative ways of looking at it.”