Newly Elected Teamsters President Sean O’Brien Still Facing Questions About His Role In ‘Top Chef’ Extortion Case

Questions about the role newly elected Teamsters president Sean O’Brien played in a thuggish 2014 labor dispute on the Boston set of Top Chef are still dogging him, resurfacing recently in the run-up to his election last week.

O’Brien, president of Boston’s Teamsters Local 25, steadfastly has maintained that he was not responsible for arranging the picketing of the show that led to five of his members being arrested and indicted for attempted extortion in a picket-line incident in which racist, homophobic and misogynistic taunts and threats of violence were hurled at members of the show’s cast and crew.

As first reported by Deadline, about a dozen members of Local 25 had set up a picket line on June 10, 2014, outside the Steel & Rye restaurant in the Boston suburb of Milton, where the show was filming after having been chased out of Boston by the Teamsters, who wanted the producers to sign a contract and hire their guys.

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A federal indictment, filed on September 30, 2015, summarized what took place that day on the picket line.

“Throughout the morning,” the indictment said, “the defendants continued to use and threaten to use physical violence against members of the crew and others. The defendants yelled profanities and racial and homophobic slurs at the crew and others. The defendants blocked vehicles from the entryway to the set and used actual physical violence and threats of physical violence to try and prevent people from entering the set.”

Said U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz at the time: “The indictment alleges that a group of rogue Teamsters employed old-school thug tactics to get no-work jobs from an out-of-town production company. In the course of this alleged conspiracy, they managed to chase a legitimate business out of the City of Boston and then harassed the cast and crew when they set up shop in Milton. This kind of conduct reflects poorly on our city and must be addressed for what it is – not union organizing, but criminal extortion.”

During the subsequent trial, however, none of the witnesses testified to having seen or been subjected to physical violence. And the government’s case had been flawed from the very beginning. One of the five men originally indicted, it turned out, was the wrong man – an innocent Local 25 member who looked a lot like a guy in the photos from the picket line that day.

O’Brien, who will take office as Teamsters president in March, always has put the blame for the fracas on Mark Harrington – Local 25’s secretary-treasurer and his second-in-command – who in 2016 pleaded guilty to attempted extortion, was sentenced to two years of probation and six months of home confinement and was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine and restitution of $24,023. The four other accused men later were acquitted following a sensational trial in federal court.

‘Top Chef’ Teamsters Trial: Producer Details Taunts & Slurs But Says Show Contestant Was ‘Escalating Situation’

But Steve Vairma, a vice president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters – who O’Brien defeated to succeed James P. Hoffa to become the next president of the 1.3 million-member union – said during a recent debate that he knows for a fact that O’Brien sent the picketers to the show’s set and that O’Brien “had a really big concern” that he was going to be arrested along with the others.

The Top Chef incident came up in the campaign during a September 2 debate between O’Brien and Vairma. Moderator Lisa Matthews, president of the National Press Club, read a question that had been posed to O’Brien by a Teamster member. “Local 25 was involved in a well-publicized incident where you sent members to picket a taping of the TV show Top Chef,” she read. “The picketers broke the law, were indicted, and your own secretary-treasurer was forced to resign after being indicted and convicted. You disavowed those members and told investigators that you would invoke your Fifth Amendment rights before them if you were called as a witness by either the defense or the prosecution. Did you send the members to this picket line, and why did you feel compelled to plead the Fifth if you did nothing wrong?”

O’Brien responded: “I represent a local union of 11,500 members. We have 220 collective bargaining agreements. My secretary-treasurer had full authority to set up informational picket lines and/or community standards picket lines, which he did. I was actually with [the IBT’s] general secretary-treasurer Ken Hall, out of town on a matter. But the fact remains that my opponent has used this to attack me; has used [this] to state that we didn’t stand by and abandoned our members. We signed joint defense agreements, as a local union, with our criminal attorneys, their criminal attorneys and also our labor attorneys. We developed strategies throughout the process.

“It was unfortunate that our members got indicted,” he continued. “They didn’t commit any crimes on that picket line, because if they did, the local police would have arrested them, and they didn’t. And we developed jury instructions, collectively, and thankfully, our members were acquitted and we paid the legal fees of three out of the four defendants that were wrongfully accused, and we were able to move forward.”

Vairma then told him: “First of all, I want to remind you that I was at that same meeting that you were at. When we were in the airport and you were getting ready to go back and catch a plane, the same as I was ready to go back and catch a plane, you had a really big concern over the fact that you had sent these people down there to go on those picket lines, and you were critically worried that you were going to be arrested that same day that you arrived back in Boston at Logan Airport that same day.

“I would never send anybody in my local union and put them in harm’s way, knowing that it’s going to be an illegal picket line,” he added. “And for sure, I’m gonna take responsibility that if I do that and I put somebody in that position, I’m gonna take responsibility for that. I would never throw anybody under the bus for doing something that I asked them to do.”

O’Brien shot back: “Steve, no one got thrown under the bus, and I don’t know where you’re making that fictitious story up, but it sounds good, it sounds compelling.”

“It’s not a story…” Vairma interrupted.

O’Brien continued: “But the reality of it is this: Our members got acquitted; no one walked away from our members, and we continued to fight for our members. I just find it odd that six years later — he should have stood up then if he had such a strong opinion of it, and why didn’t you do that back then?”

Harrington’s guilty plea and conviction belies O’Brien’s claim that the indicted men “didn’t commit any crimes on that picket line.” And before he was sentenced in December 2016, Harrington apologized for his conduct on the picket line. In a letter to U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock, he wrote: “Over the past 16 months I have reflected back upon that day with great remorse. Your Honor, this prosecution and the allegations have shaken me to my core. It is not reflective of my character. Your Honor, I apologize to you and anyone else that was impacted on that day.”

But after watching a livestream of the debate, Harrington posted this on an anti-O’Brien Facebook page: “Wow! Not surprised he has no moral compass. Will say and do anything to benefit himself. I know better than anyone.”

See the full debate here. The questioning about the Top Chef incident begins at the 49:25 mark and ends at 52:18:

Testimony at the trial revealed that although the four defendants – John Fidler, Daniel Redmond, Robert Cafarelli and Michael Ross – were acquitted, the behavior of the picketers was reprehensible.

Ellie Carbajal, a longtime supervising producer on the show, told the jury that as Padma Lakshmi, the show’s host, arrived at the restaurant that day, the Teamsters “swarmed her vehicle and surrounded it. They were furious,” she said, noting that one of them, his angry face close to Lakshmi’s, said to the others: “That’s the pretty one. We want to smash her face in.”

You can watch a brief video of the picketers that was shot by a female crew member here.

Lakshmi testified that she was “terrified” and “felt threatened.” The Teamsters, she said, “had slashed the tires of a bunch of cars,” and “people were afraid to drive home alone.”

She said she’d been driven in a minivan to the restaurant by her longtime assistant, Jason Duffy, where they were greeted in the parking lot by a group of angry men. “I told Jason to slow the car down to avoid hitting these guys,” she testified.

‘Top Chef’ Teamsters Trial: Padma Lakshmi Says She Was “Terrified”: “I Thought He Might Hit Me”

Her passenger-side window was down, and one of the Teamsters put his arm in the window, resting his elbow on her door. “He kinda said, ‘Oh, looky here, what a pretty face. What a shame about that pretty face,’” Lakshmi testified. “I felt he was bullying me. I thought he might hit me. I felt threatened. I felt really bad for Jason. He looked terrified. I thought it was less likely that they would hit a girl. I’m glad they didn’t go to Jason’s side. He’s the unsung hero of our show. He look terrified. His knuckles were white on the wheel.”

Duffy testified that as he tried to enter the parking lot, he was approached by a Teamster who said, “Oh, pretty lady in the car – who’s this?” He said another Teamster “approached the car and called me a ‘pickle.’ It had a weird, jokey feel to it, like they were trying to provoke us.” He said a “very angry guy” approached Lakshmi on the passenger side and was yelling at her. “I didn’t hear 100% on the other side, but Padma was clearly uneasy and scared – there was panic on her face.”

On cross-examination, he said that one of the Teamsters said in a heavy Boston accent, “Hey pickle, who you got in your car, pickle? Who’s that pretty lady in the car?” He then asked the defense attorney, “Do you know what ’pickle’ means? That means ‘fag.’”

The Teamsters kept at for three hours, raining down racist, sexist and homophobic threats and slurs as staffers came and went from the set. Jennifer Levy, Bravo’s SVP Production, arrived at the restaurant in her black SUV, and soon found herself running a gauntlet of hate. “She got out of her car in front of the location and quickly ran through the picket line,” a crewmember recalled. “They were yelling: ‘You bitch! You slut! We’re gonna get you!’ It went on like that all day.”

“It felt like I was being attacked,” Levy testified during the trial in federal court in Boston. As she tried to cross their picket line, she said, the men shouted at her, “You f*cking scumbag! You going to work today, you f*cking scab scumbag?”

Jennifer Busch, a line producer on the show, testified that the Teamsters were “yelling racial and derogatory terms” including “faggot” and “c*nt,” but said that the only physical contact she witnessed on the picket line between the vastly outnumbered Teamsters and the show’s crew were “chest or belly bumping.”

Another producer on the show, Justin Rae Barnes, testified in court that the four defendants were “really aggressive, yelling in our faces. … I was scared to death, to be honest.” Several members of the crew were taking photos of the encounter, but she said she didn’t take any pictures “because I didn’t want to die that day.”

No one was physically injured, and no one was arrested, but by the end of the day, the tires of more than a dozen of the crew’s vehicles had been slashed, and many had their antenna broken off.

John King, who was then Milton’s Deputy Police Chief and is now its Chief of Police, told Deadline at the time that the Teamsters were “threatening, heckling and harassing.” The first officer on the scene, he said, had to call for back-up 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.”

O’Brien, who was not on hand for the picketing, later told the police that he had nothing to do with it. According to a police report, he told the cops that “he has the same concerns as we do regarding the incident. He also stated what happened was not a planned event through Local 25. There were never any signups for an organized picket line in Milton against Top Chef. Whatever union members that were causing the problems in Milton came on their own. His office is actively looking into what members of his union were in Milton.”

In August, two days after Deadline broke the story about the picket-line fracas, O’Brien dismissed it, saying in a statement: “The Top Chef situation as it is written is fiction at best. We have the right to lawfully demonstrate and protest the filming of non-union non-Massachusetts workers. We have fought long and hard to protect our members, their livelihoods and will continue to do so. If the allegations were true, Milton Police would have taken appropriate action. Again, Teamsters Local 25 will continue to be vigilant and hold employers accountable when it comes to making sure area standards are upheld, but more importantly to respect the workers that are responsible for their success and prosperity.”

A spokeswoman for Local 25 told the Boston Herald, “As far as we’re concerned, nothing happened.”

The Boston Globe, however, confirmed Deadline’s account. “Sources confirm Top Chef harassment by local Teamsters,” read the paper’s headline. “A source close to the network did tell us that details of the Deadline account are true,” the story said.

O’Brien, never testified at the trial. The Boston Herald reported that a few weeks before jury selection was to begin, attorneys for the four defendants disclosed that he planned to plead the Fifth Amendment and not answer any questions if called to testify. Local 25 attorney Martin G. Weinberg told the Herald: “The issue is premature. It may well be a non-issue since neither side has subpoenaed Mr. O’Brien. Besides, the U.S. Supreme Court has made absolutely clear that the Fifth Amendment is the refuge of the innocent, not just the guilty.”

None of the four defendants took the witness stand either. In fact, the defense rested without calling a single witness. The prosecution’s theory of the case was that the Teamsters were seeking “no-show” jobs, or as the indictment put it, “Money to be paid as wages for imposed, unwanted, and unnecessary and superfluous services.” The show, however, had already been fully staffed with non-union drivers, and didn’t need any Teamsters.

But in their closing arguments, defense lawyers told the jury there was no evidence that the accused had knowingly tried to extort the show for no-show jobs, and that their actions that day on the picket line were part of a legitimate labor dispute. The proof of that, they argued, came from one of the prosecution’s own witnesses, Bravo executive David O’Connell, who offered to pay them just to go away.

“I didn’t want them on the set,” he testified. “I offered to pay them double to go away.” The Teamsters, however, “rejected” that offer, he testified. “They wanted to be paid under a legitimate collective bargaining agreement.”

In the end, that might have won the case for the defendants. “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,” defense attorney Kevin Barron said in his closing argument. “But it didn’t. It was money offered, money refused.” And that, he said, is “the gaping hole in the government’s case.”

O’Connell’s testimony about offering to pay the Teamsters double to go away “was one of a handful of surprises that came out in our favor,” defense attorney Carmine Lepore told Deadline after the verdict. “That’s traditional extortion, but it couldn’t have been more clear that what they were seeking by refusing that offer were legitimate jobs.”

And that clearly undercut the prosecution’s theory that the defendants had been trying to force the production company, Magical Elves, to hire Teamsters to perform superfluous services – a key element to the attempted extortion charge.

Lepore said the jury “got it right. The government didn’t have anything to support their theory of extortion. The linchpin was whether they were seeking additional services or replacement services” by pressuring the company to replace non-union drivers with union drivers, which is perfectly legal.

Prosecutors also flubbed when they made the point that the picketers were not carrying signs or handing out leaflets — as if to prove that this was not a legitimate picket line — when in fact there is no law requiring picketers engaged in a legitimate labor dispute to carry signs or hand out leaflets.

“From the onset,” Lepore said of the defense team, “we were scratching our heads, wondering, ‘Why are we here? How is this a federal crime? What do they have besides some name calling and bad behavior?’”

Had the four men been convicted, each faced a maximum of 20 years in prison.

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