Celebrity chef Mario Batali goes on trial over allegations that he forcibly groped and kissed a woman in the only criminal case to result from multiple #MeToo-era claims of sexual harassment and assault that helped fuel his downfall.
Batali will appear in Boston Municipal Court on Monday (May 9) on a 2019 charge of indecent assault and battery of a woman at a bar who came forward to report her experience after other women accused the chef of sexually aggressive behaviour.
The woman, Natali Tene, said Batali assaulted her after posing with her in 2017 for “selfie” photographs at Towne Stove and Spirits, a bar located near Boston’s Eataly, the Italian market and restaurant chain he at the time partly owned.
Batali’s lawyers have called those claims fabricated and argue Tene went to the police to bolster a lawsuit she is pursuing against him to win a monetary settlement. “Our defence is she lies and lies all the time,” Anthony Fuller, Batali’s lawyer, said at an April hearing. Tene’s lawyer declined to comment.
The case is one of a handful of criminal prosecutions of celebrities following the explosion of the #MeToo movement in 2017, which exposed widespread patterns of sexual harassment or abuse of women in multiple spheres of American life. If convicted, Batali would face up to 2.5 years in jail and having to register as a sex offender.
Prosecutors said Tene came forward with her account after the food website Eater.com in Dec 2017 detailed allegations by four women who said Batali touched them inappropriately over at least two decades.
That report prompted Batali’s firing from the ABC cooking and talk show The Chew, and Batali later cut ties with restaurants like New York’s Babbo and Del Posto he partly owned. He denied allegations of sexual assault but apologised for “deeply inappropriate” behaviour.
Batali and his business partner in July agreed to pay US$600k (S$835k) to at least 20 former employees to resolve claims by New York’s attorney general that their Manhattan restaurants were rife with sexual harassment.
In the run-up to the trial, Batali’s lawyers and prosecutors have jockeyed over what evidence Judge James Stanton, who is overseeing the trial, would allow jurors to hear. While prosecutors say Tene came forward to show solidarity with other women, Stanton ruled they may not ask her about the allegations that Eater reported.
But, Stanton also ruled Batali’s lawyers may not at trial play a voicemail left with police by a friend of Tene who was at the bar saying he did not want to see “some guy go up the river for something that’s not exactly true or correct.”
The judge said Batali’s lawyers can, however, ask Tene about a questionnaire she filled out in Feb 2018 during jury selection in an unrelated assault case in which she said nothing about being a crime victim while claiming to be clairvoyant.
Text messages Batali’s lawyers obtained show that she then wrote to a friend that she looked the defendant up online and that he “totally did it,” despite instructions not to conduct outside research and to keep an open mind.
When the text messages emerged, prosecutors in Middlesex County consented to vacating the man’s conviction due to jury taint and charged Tene herself with contempt. On Thursday, she struck a deal to have that case dismissed in a year following a period of administrative probation, court records show.