Celebrity chef Mario Batali acquitted of sexual assault charge in Boston

BOSTON (Reuters) – Chef Mario Batali was acquitted Tuesday of sexually assaulting a woman in a Boston bar in 2017 as she posed with her to take “selfies” for fans, as a judge questioned the defendant’s credibility in the latest ###. A trial from the MeToo era includes an American celebrity accused of misconduct towards women.

In the non-jury trial, Judge James Stanton of Boston Municipal Court found Batali, 61, not guilty of immoral assault and battery in 2019.

Natalie Tenney, 32, testified that Batali touched and forcefully kissed her breasts, buttocks and thighs while taking selfies with her at a bar near Italy’s in Boston, the Italian market and restaurant he owned at the time.

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When announcing the verdict, the judge said he had concluded that Tene had “significant credibility issues.”

Stanton said that although Batali “didn’t cover himself with glory on the night in question,” the images themselves raised reasonable suspicion of assault given the length of time Tinny spent standing in front of them and the visible gaps between the two people.

“Pictures tell a thousand words,” Stanton said.

Batali did not show any clear reaction as the verdict was announced and left the courtroom surrounded by journalists without making any comment. If convicted, Batali could have faced up to two and a half years in prison and registered as a sex offender.

“While we are disappointed with the judge’s ruling, my office will not waive our support for the victim in this case,” Attorney General Kevin Hayden said in a statement. “It can be very difficult for a victim to disclose a sexual assault.”

The trial was the only criminal case brought against Batali, who was once a famous Food Network anchor and star of ABC’s cooking and talk show “The Chew,” among several accusations made by women against the celebrity chef of the #MeToo era.

Teni said she was initially “embarrassed” about the incident and only came forward after Eater.com in December 2017 detailed the allegations of four other women who said Batali had touched them inappropriately over the course of at least two decades.

“I want to be able to take control of what happened and come forward, say my piece, bring the truth out there – and everyone be accountable for their actions,” Tenney testified.

Batali’s attorney, Anthony Fuller, responded by saying the assault never happened and said Tine lied to get “money” through her pending civil lawsuit against the chef who is seeking more than $50,000 in damages.

“I lied for fun and I lied for money,” Fuller told the judge in closing arguments.

Stanton also cited Tene’s “egregious” misconduct in an unrelated assault case as contributing to his doubts about its credibility. When filling out a questionnaire for jury duty in that other case, rather than choosing the option of identifying a victim of a crime to get out of jury service, Tenney falsely claimed to be a “clairvoyant,” according to Batali’s attorney.

After text messages obtained by Batali’s lawyers showed Tine discussed the case with a friend and conducted an outside search in violation of court orders, prosecutors in neighboring Middlesex County charged her with contempt. Tinny resolved this issue last week.

Soon after the Eater.com report, Batali was fired from “The Chew” and then cut ties with restaurants including Babbo and Del Posto in New York that he partially owns. He denied the sexual assault allegations but apologized for the “extremely inappropriate” behavior.

Batali and his business partner agreed in July to pay at least 20 former employees $600,000 to resolve New York attorney general’s claims that their Manhattan restaurants were rife with sexual harassment. Read more

The explosion of the #MeToo movement in 2017 exposed patterns of sexual harassment or abuse of women in multiple areas of American life. American celebrities convicted in criminal trials in the #MeToo era include film producer Harvey Weinstein and comedian Bill Cosby, although Cosby’s conviction was overturned on appeal. Read more

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(Nate Raymond reports from Boston.) Editing by Will Dunham

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Nate Raymond Report on Federal Judiciary and Litigation. He can be contacted at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.