UPDATE The jury has finished its deliberations for the day without reaching a verdict and will resume Friday morning.
UPDATED with details and background: Closing arguments were heard today in the trial of four Boston Teamsters accused of attempting to extort driving jobs from the producers of Top Chef three years ago. The case has gone to the jury.
Before a packed courtroom, federal prosecutor Kristina Barclay told the jury that the evidence presented at trial proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the four defendants — all members of Boston’s Teamsters Local 25 — attempted to shake down the show for “unwanted, unneeded and superfluous” services under the “threat of violence and the fear of economic harm.” They threatened to “smash in the pretty face” of the show’s host, Padma Lakshmi, and slashed tires on nine of the show’s production vehicles outside the Steel & Rye restaurant in suburban Milton, where the show was filming. Click here to watch a brief video of the incident that was shown in court.
'Top Chef' Teamsters Trial: Judge Weighs Jury Instructions Ahead Of Closing Arguments
Defense attorneys, however, told the jurors that there is no evidence that the defendants knowingly tried to extort the show and that their actions on the picket line that day in June 2014 were part of a legitimate labor dispute. The proof of that, defense attorney Kevin Barron said in his closing argument, is that the union’s leaders rejected an offer from Bravo executive David O’Connell to pay a few Teamsters double just to “go away.” “I didn’t want them on the set,” the exec testified. “I offered to pay them double to go away.” The Teamsters, however, “rejected that. They wanted to be paid under a legitimate collective bargaining agreement…. I knew they wanted to get into reality television.”
“He offered a bribe,” Barron told the jury. “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. But it didn’t. It was money offered, money refused.” And that, he said, is “the gaping hole in the government’s case.”
Barron added: “What’s really going on here is that reality television doesn’t want to be unionized.” And when shows come to Boston, the Teamsters there want them to sign their contract.
In her 45-minute recap of the case, Barclay said the extortion conspiracy began on the night of June 5, 2014, when defendant Daniel Redmond discovered that the show was filming at the Revere Hotel in Boston. The show already had shot six episodes in town, but when Redmond showed up at the hotel demanding to know why Teamsters weren’t being employed, the producers told location manager Derek Cunningham to go downstairs to talk to him. Cunningham agreed but told his bosses that he was quitting right there on the spot. “He didn’t quit in solidarity with the Teamsters,” she said, “but out of fear.”
Barclay told the jury that when producer Ellie Carbajal joined Cunningham downstairs, Redmond “told them he would come after them and shut down the production.” And shutting it down, Barclay said, “would have been a financial disaster for the show.” The evidence, she said, is clear that the show didn’t want or need to hire Teamsters — that all the driving jobs on the show already were filled by production assistants who did many other jobs besides driving and loading and unloading trucks. And being threatened with financial harm to hire Teamsters for unneeded services is extortion, she said.
The show’s next location was to be the Omni Parker Hotel, but the unionized hotel withdrew its invitation to film there when its management found out there would be Teamster picketing. Top Chef producers then decided to leave Boston to escape the Teamsters and film the next episode at the Steel & Rye restaurant in nearby Milton. But Local 25 president Sean O’Brien, who is not a defendant in the case, found out about it and told the producers that he’d be sending 50 Teamsters there to picket. Only six showed up on June 10, but producers had a detail of local police to provide protection.
Barclay said that during the ensuing protest, defendant John Fidler and several other Teamsters stopped Lakshmi’s minivan as her driver tried to cross the union picket line. Fidler, she said, leaned in to her window “so close she could smell him” and threatened to “smash her pretty face in.” Lakshmi testified that she was “terrified” that he was going to hit her — and that, the prosecutor said, was the threat of violence in the furtherance of attempted extortion. And she reminded the jury that a witness had seen Fidler kneeling near the wheel of a production van whose tires later were found to have been slashed.
Barclay also reminded the jury about numerous other witnesses who said they’d seen all the defendants, including Michael Ross, bullying, taunting, cursing, belly-bumping and threatening to “kick the shit out of” other members of the cast and crew in an attempt to secure “wages for services that were unwanted, unneeded and superfluous.”
In his 40-minute closing argument, defense attorney Oscar Cruz told the jury that “this case is not about offensive language, belly-bumping or property damage,” which he said are “not violations of federal law.” The main issue that the jurors must decide, he said, is whether the defendants simply were trying to force the company to replace non-union drivers with Teamster drivers or hire unwanted and unneeded Teamsters in addition to the drivers they already had. Using threats of economic harm is not illegal if the goal is to to replace non-union workers with union workers — something unions do all the time. And prosecutors, he said, have presented no evidence to prove that the defendants were asking for unwanted and unneeded jobs. And he too pointed to the union’s refusal to except the Bravo executive’s offer of a “bribe” and a “payoff” as proof that the defendants were not attempting to extort the company.
“The Teamsters were not interested in a payoff,” he said. “They wanted a collective bargaining agreement. They said, ‘We want a collective bargaining agreement, and if not, we’re going to picket you,’ and that’s exactly what happened.”
Defense attorney Carmine Lepore told the jury that “the government’s case is built on speculation. They want you to believe this is extortion just because they say so. They haven’t proven it because there is no evidence of extortion.”
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