The city and the feds have different versions of what happened with ‘Top Chef’

‘Top Chef’ judges Richard Blais and Padma Lakshmi, with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.
‘Top Chef’ judges Richard Blais and Padma Lakshmi, with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. –David Moir/Bravo

Depending on who you ask, Boston tourism chief Kenneth Brissette either attempted to smooth out a dispute between labor and the Bravo TV series Top Chef for its use of a nonunion crew, or he threatened to disrupt the production unless it brought on union workers.

The competing versions of reality are defined in two different documents.

They are, respectively: a city-commissioned report about Brissette’s involvement in the Top Chef dispute released last year; and a federal indictment unsealed Thursday, charging Brissette with extortion.

The charge against Brissette is based on allegations that he “repeatedly advised” producers for the music festival Boston Calling to hire union labor — not the Top Chef incident, which took place two months earlier.

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But the indictment does include descriptions of the Top Chef problems, which received wide-spread attention last year when charges were brought against five members of the Teamsters Local 25 who protested the production for not using union labor. And aspects of it contradict the findings of the city’s report on the incident.

The city hired outside attorney Brian Kelly to look into City Hall’s role in the picket, after the indictment against the Teamsters alleged that a Boston official had warned some restaurants of the union’s displeasure.

Kelly’s report was completed in December and publicly released in the week between Christmas and the New Year. It identified Brissette as having made the calls, but said he did not collude with union officials.

Kelly’s taxpayer-funded report and the indictment agree on key dates related to Top Chef, and seem to hone in on the same emails and phone calls in June, 2014. But they disagree on the nature of the communication.

“I know that what came out today contradicts a little bit of what Brian’s report was,” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh told reporters Thursday before directing the question to Kelly.

In an interview, Kelly said that without the power to subpoena and some witnesses refusing to speak, his investigation was necessarily limited — a cautionary note that was included in his report.

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“Bear in mind, there are many people who would not speak to us,” he said. “Nobody from Bravo or that group would talk to us.”

The city’s report

Brissette received an email from Derek Cunningham, a location scout, on June 5, 2014, saying the Teamsters were upset that Top Chef was a nonunion production. They “exchanged several emails” on the evening of June 6, according to Kelly’s report.

“Responding to an earlier request by Cunningham for Top Chef to film beauty shots with a camera jib at Boston Common, the Public Gardens, and outside the housing for Top Chef‘s cast, Brissette wrote, ‘[n]o shooting until I speak with bravo [sic] on this,'” the report reads.

Later, Brissette told Cunningham, “We are going to have to talk about this mess.” That was a reference to the labor issues, Kelly wrote.

However, Brissette told Kelly that the “no shooting” demand was not due to labor issues, but because he needed to determine whether the filming request would require permits.

That same evening, according to Kelly, Brissette connected with Ellie Carbajal, a producer for Top Chef. Carbajal emailed Brissette, saying Cunningham had told her the production’s permits would be revoked.

The report says that during a 15-minute phone conversation, Brissette told Carbajal he “had no knowledge of anyone attempting to revoke Top Chef permits” and that he “had never discussed the topic with Cunningham.”

After the call, Carbajal emailed Brissette to tell him that producers would meet with Teamsters members in the following days.

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That never materialized into a contract.

Brissette later called two Boston restaurants slated to appear on the show to tell them of the potential Teamsters picket line. Kelly described the call as a courtesy heads up. The restaurants backed out of the show, and the protests ultimately occurred at a different restaurant in Milton.

The indictment

The indictment describes things differently.

It does not name Cunningham, but it aligns with Kelly’s report by referring to a message from “John Doe A” that came June 5, alerting Brissette that the union was angry about the production. And, like the Kelly report, the indictment refers to emails between the two the following day.

According to the indictment, “Brissette sent an email to John Doe A stating that there would be no filming until Brissette spoke to Company B,” a reference to Top Chef producers. “Brissette advised John Doe A to hold the permits and not release them to Company B until the issue with the union local was resolved.”

The indictment says Brissette then spoke with an official from Top Chef, which aligns with the Kelly report’s conversation between Brissette and Carbajal. But, again, the indictment characterized the conversation differently.

“Brissette thereafter instructed a Company B producer to make a deal with the union local regarding the hiring of union labor and said that, unless a deal was made, the permits would not be released,” the indictment reads.

According to the indictment, Brissette “ultimately relented” in the following days after Top Chef officials agreed to meet with labor representatives.

He then called the restaurants to advise them of the potential protests. Top Chef “felt that it was left with no choice but to seek locations to film outside the City of Boston,” the indictment reads.

The indictment says Kelly told the city’s chief operating officer (at the time, Joe Rull) that he had “pulled” the permits for Top Chef. Rull, according to the indictment, told Brissette he could not do so because it was illegal.

Kelly’s report mentions Top Chef discussions between Brissette and Rull on June 6, but says they both denied discussing permitting. Kelly’s report also notes that Brissette had no power to revoke permits.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office also says Brissette spoke with the director of the Massachusetts Film Office, who is Lisa Strout. Strout told him, “it was none of our business, being in state government, whether something is union or non-union,” according to the indictment.

The Kelly report did not mention any conversation with Strout, and Kelly confirmed he did not talk to her.

The indictment goes on to allege that in August, Brissette pressured producers of a music festival, which fits the description of Boston Calling, to hire union labor “despite the warnings from government officials in June,” leading to his indictment.

Kelly is currently looking in to the Boston Calling allegations for the city, according to the mayor’s office.

Read the two documents below:

The Kelly report

The federal indictment

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