Teamsters members charged with extorting 'Top Chef' staff

BOSTON (AP) — Five members of a Teamsters local accused of intimidating the staff and crew of "Top Chef" while it was filmed in Boston last year were indicted Wednesday on federal extortion charges.

The indictment says members of Teamsters Local 25 demanded that union members be hired as drivers. When the producer for the reality TV show said they had already hired their employees, the Teamsters warned they would follow the crew and picket, prompting the Omni Parker House in Boston to cancel filming there.

The Teamsters also are accused of yelling profanities and racial and homophobic slurs at host Padma Lakshmi and the crew while they filmed at Steel & Rye, a restaurant in the Boston suburb of Milton.

The men are charged with conspiracy to extort and attempted extortion in order to obtain no-work jobs for fellow Teamsters.

U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said the Teamsters' actions were "not union organizing, but criminal extortion."

"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," Ortiz said.

The local's president, Sean O'Brien, didn't immediately return a call seeking comment. O'Brien previously denied that any Teamsters had harassed crew members, calling the accusations "fiction at best."

A lawyer for Mark Harrington, one of the accused Teamsters, said his client denies the allegations.

"His only conduct was to exercise his lawful right to protest a company that was not maintaining area standards of wages and benefits," said attorney Rob Goldstein.

Lawyers for the other men didn't immediately return calls seeking comment. The men are due to appear in U.S. District Court on Wednesday afternoon.

Joseph Bonavolonta, the acting special agent in charge of the FBI's Boston division, called the Teamsters' actions "egregious."

"While unions have the right to advocate on behalf of their members, they do not have the right to use violence and intimidation," Bonavolonta said.

The indictment alleges that beginning June 5, 2014, the men conspired to force the production company to pay Local 25 members for unnecessary work by threatening physical and economic harm.

On June 10, 2014, several of the men are accused of showing up at Steel & Rye, walking in lockstep toward the doors, then chest-bumping and stomach-bumping crew members to try to forcibly enter the restaurant. The indictment alleges that the men continued to use and threaten physical violence against the crew and others. They also blocked vehicles from entering the set and tried to prevent people from entering, according to the indictment.

The indictment doesn't specify at whom the men yelled profanities and slurs, but a person close to the investigation said Lakshmi was among those targeted. The person was not authorized to release details of the investigation and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

The indictment said crew members saw the Teamsters standing close to cars belonging to the crew. Nine cars were later found to have had their tires slashed.