Boston Teamster Thugs Go on Trial for Terrorizing TV Host Padma Lakshmi, Others

International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 25 has a well-earned reputation as the bad boys of Boston-area organized labor. Indeed, the union has few peers anywhere when it comes to intimidation. A Boston federal jury last Thursday finished hearing several days of testimony in the case of four local members accused of terrorizing Padma Lakshmi, host of Top Chef, and other members of the popular reality TV show’s nonunion production crew, back in June 2014 for crossing a picket line. The incident occurred outside a restaurant where a segment was to be filmed. Lakshmi testified on Monday that she was “petrified” and “paralyzed with fear.” Evidence indicates this “picket line,” contrary to union assertions, was a shakedown. A fifth Local 25 member already had been sentenced in December. Verdicts are expected soon.

Teamsters Local 25, based in Charlestown (Boston), Mass., has been on the Union Corruption Update radar screen for a long time. Back in April 2003, former President George Cashman pleaded guilty to extortion and embezzlement for fleecing a union benefit plan. A unionized trucking contractor, Thomas DiSilva, also pleaded guilty in that case. Several years earlier, Cashman had given a green light for an assault on a movie set concession truck operator, Susan Christy. Having nixed a proposal pitched by reputed Boston mobster and Local 25 “transportation coordinator” James Flynn to kill Christy because she belonged to another union, Cashman suggested an alternative plan: Knock her around a bit. Not long after that, a Teamster driver, Bartley Small, pulled Christy from her truck, tossed her against the vehicle, and then slapped and scratched her face. She reported the incident to police, but no charges were filed. The union removed Small from the set but kept him as a member.

Much more recently, another woman, television personality Padma Lakshmi, received an unruly visit from a Local 25 welcoming committee. Ms. Lakshmi, who turns 47 next month, is a tall, strikingly attractive model-actress emigre from India. Since 2006 she has hosted a television cooking show, Top Chef, on the NBC-owned Bravo network. In each episode, a group of less-than-famous professional chefs meet at a restaurant and compete against each other (and the clock) in an elimination tournament; a celebrity chef judges the culinary results. The show decamps in a different American city each season. Boston played host during Season 12, with program segments airing October 15, 2014-February 11, 2015. Lakshmi and other crew members, as court records indicate, had a traumatic experience during the shooting of one of those segments several months earlier.

It was June 2014, and the 11,000-member Teamsters Local 25 was not in a good mood. The Top Chef production company, Magical Elves, was in town. That it was nonunion was all Local 25 leaders needed to know. On June 5, four union members – John Fidler, Daniel Redmond, Robert Cafarelli and Michael Ross – were picketing in front of the Revere Hotel in downtown Boston, demanding the show hire union members as drivers. The show’s location manager, Derek Cunningham, though planning to leave his job, told the producers he would talk to one of the union people. He went downstairs and confronted Daniel Redmond, the latter brimming with menace, and asked Redmond why the union was conducting a picket. Redmond yelled at Cunningham, telling him he should be ashamed of himself for not giving Teamsters Local 25 advance notice of filming. He also told Cunningham to take up the issue with the union’s secretary-treasurer, Mark Harrington. That night, Cunningham received a harassing phone call from Robert Cafarelli, who said, “Quitting was the smartest thing you’ve done in 2014.” Top Chef decided to pull out of the Revere Hotel, but several days later found an alternative downtown venue: the Omni Parker House Hotel. Unfortunately, hotel management, once having been made aware of Teamster plans for disruption, withdrew its invitation; employees who crossed a picket line could be in real danger.

After scrambling for a few days, the producers found a willing host in the Steel & Rye restaurant in suburban Milton, Mass. Shortly thereafter, those friendly guys from Local 25 got wind of this and decided to ramp up their game. On June 10, around 9 A.M., union members Fidler, Redmond, Cafarelli, Ross and Harrington arrived at the restaurant, as Top Chef staff were unloading their equipment. It was time for a rumble. The Teamster quintet marched in lockstep, entered the production area, and hurled insults and threats at production crew members, chest-thumping a few of them. The union goons also blocked food deliveries to the restaurant and, for good measure, vandalized at least nine production vehicles. A number of on-duty Milton police officers stood by, fitfully breaking up a couple of “fights,” but doing no more. They made no arrests. To add insult to injury, the police department sent Top Chef producers a $2,846 invoice for “security” services.

Padma Lakshmi got an extra dose of the Teamster treatment. When her van arrived at the restaurant, union members swarmed the vehicle. One of the Teamsters, John Fidler, stuck his arm through the window and told her: “Oh, looky here, what a pretty face. I’ll smash your pretty little face.” Another Teamster, Daniel Redmond, called Lakshmi a “cunt” and a “towelhead.” At least one of the “protestors” also called her and her driver “scabs.” The menace lasted about three hours. Justice would take a lot longer to achieve. Top Chef producers, not backing down, filed a federal complaint. And federal agents, unlike Milton police, were up to the job. In 2015, they arrested and charged all five members of the Local 25 shakedown crew for participation in a criminal conspiracy. The defendants pleaded not guilty, claiming they were exercising their legal right to picket. It was a thin claim, thin enough at any rate for thug-in-chief Mark Harrington to plead guilty to attempted extortion in November 2016, but with an understanding that he would not have to further cooperate with prosecutors. He was sentenced in December to six months of home confinement, and ordered to pay $24,000 in restitution and a $10,000 fine. With Harrington out of the picture, the other four defendants felt confident they could continue to plead their innocence. That set the stage for the recently-concluded trial at the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse in Boston.

Evidence indicated that the union played mean. Prosecutors summarized the events of June 10, 2014:

Defendants continued to act in a threatening manner and threatened to cause physical harm to the production staff and crew if they entered [Steel & Rye]. The production crew was scared, threatened, and intimidated by defendants’ actions. The Teamsters blocked entry to the set and tried to prevent trucks from getting through. At one point, when a production assistant came to help, a Teamster bumped him so forcefully that he was pressed up against the hood of the vehicle. At this time, the police officer again came over and broke up the incident.

Last Monday’s testimony by Padma Lakshmi was the highlight of the trial. She recalled John Fidler threatening to smash her face: “I felt he was bullying me. I felt he was saying ‘I might hit you.’” Lakshmi testified that she asked a nearby cop for help, but got none. “I expected a police officer to say, ‘Hey, get away from her car,’ or ‘don’t put your hand in her car,’ or ‘move away,’” she said. “There was a lot of yelling…really serious schoolyard bullying.” Rather than risk being beaten, she told the court, she instructed her driver to back out and find another way to enter the parking lot. By blocking food deliveries to the restaurant, Lakshmi added, the Teamsters “drastically affected the whole production, not just that day.” Lakshmi wasn’t the only member of the Top Chef team to experience union terror. Ellie Carabajal, supervising producer, told the jury, “They [the union members] swarmed her [Lakshmi’s] vehicle and surrounded it. They were furious.” Erica Ross, former co-executive producer testified that she witnessed the same incident and that Lakshmi was “visibly terrified.” And Derek Cunningham, who has had a hard time finding professional work, testified that he had been living in fear for his life since “the whole scene, generally, from June 5, honestly, to right now.”

Lawyers for the defendants rationalized their clients’ behavior as lawful picketing. All these union members wanted, the story went, was a desire for higher wages, better working conditions and more union drivers on the set – as if terrorizing people out of fulfilling contractual obligations had anything to do with legality. Kevin Barron, the attorney for Michael Ross, urged jurors to look past “emotional evidence” and consider whether his client had intended to extort anyone. By implication, he was arguing that screaming obscenities, slashing tires, threatening to bash a woman’s face and shutting down a television show are mere figments of one’s emotions.

City Hall was not entirely innocent in all this. According to prosecutors, Kenneth Brissette, tourism director for Boston Mayor Martin Walsh (himself a former official with Laborers Local 223), had contacted local business owners about Teamster picketing plans in hopes of persuading them to back out of participation in Top Chef. Brissette has pleaded not guilty in a separate active case, described at length last July in Union Corruption Update, for attempting to withhold permits to a concert promoter who sought to hold a festival on city grounds because the event would employ workers not belonging to the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees.

Teamster international headquarters, if tacitly, also gave a blank check to Local 25. The local has a long history of involvement in the Boston underworld, particularly with James “Whitey” Bulger, the now-convicted head of the notorious Winter Hill gang that terrorized South Boston. Bulger had been indicted for his role in 19 murders before taking flight in December 1994; he would be captured in Santa Monica over a decade and a half later. Current Local 25 President Sean O’Brien comes from a Teamsters Local 25 family. He is an Old School guy who protects his own. As Union Corruption Update reported more than once, Local 25 several years ago took over Teamsters Local 82 when several of the latter’s members, led by President John Perry, were indicted for repeated incidents of shaking down exhibitors at Boston-area trade shows; the crew eventually pleaded guilty. Teamsters International President James P. Hoffa, a strong ally of both Local 25 and Local 82, facilitated the merger.

Union violence is woven into the fabric of labor relations in this country. Formally, it is illegal. The Norris-LaGuardia Act, the National Labor Relations Act, the Hobbs Act, the Taft Hartley-Act, and the Racketeer Influenced and Corruption Organizations Act (RICO) each allow for injunctive relief and/or criminal prosecution against unions that employ violence or threats of violence. Unfortunately, in practice, many crimes go unpunished because the National Labor Relations Board often has ruled in favor of unions in such cases and because the courts have given unions leeway. Particularly egregious was the Supreme Court’s U.S. v. Enmons decision (1973), which gave unions the right to intimidate as a justifiable expression of interstate commerce. Hopefully, when members of the Boston federal jury reach their verdict, they will have found nothing justifiable about the behavior of Teamsters Local 25.

Postscript: In the end, common sense eluded the jurors. Several hours ago, on the morning of August 15, the Boston federal jury acquitted the four accused Teamsters on all charges, despite dramatic testimony from Padma Lakshmi and other persons that the defendants had been behaving in a violent and threatening manner. A victory of sentiment over reason, the verdict gives the union added incentive to inflict its thuggery.