Mario Batali Found Not Guilty in Sexual Assault Trial – The New York Times

The charges stemmed from a woman’s allegation that the celebrity chef groped her in a Boston bar in 2017.

The chef Mario Batali stood trial in Boston this week on charges of indecent assault and battery. Of all the chefs accused in the #MeToo movement, he is the only one to face criminal charges.
Credit…Steven Senne/Pool via REUTERS

Kim Severson

Mario Batali, the celebrity chef who once sat atop a multimillion-dollar food enterprise and hosted a daytime TV talk show, was found not guilty of indecent assault and battery on Tuesday.

Judge James Stanton delivered the verdict in Boston Municipal Court after a two-day bench trial centered on testimony from Natali Tene, 32, who said that Mr. Batali, 61, forcibly kissed and grabbed her during a late-night selfie session at a Boston bar in April 2017.

“I’ve never been touched before like that,” she testified, “like squeezing in between my legs, squeezing my vagina to pull me closer to him, as if that’s a normal way to grab someone.”

Judge Stanton said, “It’s an understatement to say that Mr. Batali did not cover himself in glory on the night in question.” But he added that Ms. Tene “has significant credibility issues.”

Mr. Batali, 61, smiled and nodded as the judge acquitted him. Ms. Tene sat in the back of the courtroom and left as soon as the verdict was read.

Mr. Batali did not testify, and his defense team called no witnesses; on Monday, he waived his right to a jury trial. If he had been found guilty, he would have faced up to two and a half years in jail and have been required to register as a sex offender.

In his closing arguments, his lawyer, Tony Fuller, said, “She lied for fun and she lied for money,” referring to a lawsuit Ms. Tene has filed against Mr. Batali.

After the verdict, Kevin Hayden, the Suffolk County district attorney, issued a statement expressing disappointment and acknowledging how difficult it can be for a victim to discuss sexual assault. “When the individual who committed such an abhorrent act is in a position of power or celebrity, the decision to report an assault can become all the more challenging and intimidating,” he said.

Mr. Batali, once the host of the ABC cooking-themed show “The Chew,” is one of several prominent chefs and restaurateurs hit by accusations of sexual assault and harassment that began tumbling out in the fall of 2017 as part of the #MeToo movement in cities like New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. He is the only one to have faced criminal charges.

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Credit…Steven Senne/Pool via REUTERS

Only two witnesses testified during the trial, both for the prosecution. Ms. Tene, 32, who works in the software industry, spent most of the first day on the stand, describing her encounter with Mr. Batali late one evening at Towne Stove and Spirits, a bar in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston that has since closed.

Mr. Batali saw her surreptitiously shoot a photo of him from a few seats away at the bar, then invited her to take some pictures with him, she said. As the photo session began, she testified, so did the forced kissing and groping.

The only other witness called was a friend of Ms. Tene’s, Rachel Buckley, 37. She said Ms. Tene sent her a picture of Mr. Batali the night of their encounter, along with texts that described him as appearing extremely drunk but didn’t mention his grabbing her. Details of the groping and kisses from Mr. Batali came up in subsequent conversations, Ms. Buckley testified.

Much of the evidence in the trial came from two years’ worth of Ms. Tene’s text messages, which sometimes showed her being flippant about selling the photos or getting money from Mr. Batali. They revealed incidents in which she lied to get out of a gym membership and, in an effort to avoid jury duty, told another court that she was clairvoyant. Once she was seated on that jury, she violated court rules by searching the defendant’s background and texting a friend that she thought he was guilty.

The judge noted those incidents and her disregard for the courts, in addition to photos from the night at the bar that showed her smiling after her first encounter with Mr. Batali. Three minutes later, she took another round of selfies with the chef.

“Her reaction or lack thereof to the alleged assault is telling,” the judge said.

Just before he ruled, Judge Stanton also admonished Mr. Batali. “His conduct and his appearance and his demeanor were not befitting of a public person of his stature at that time,” he said. “It is a lesson for all of those people in public or celebrity positions.”

Mr. Batali’s lawyers pulled the images and texts from Ms. Tene’s phone, which a judge ordered her to turn over as part of a lawsuit she filed against Mr. Batali in 2018, seeking damages for the infliction of emotional distress. Both prosecutors and her lawyer fought to prevent the forensic analysis of her phone.

Prosecutors countered by saying that the images did not show the entirety of the interaction or where Mr. Batali’s hands were below the frame. Texts between friends that made jokes about Mr. Batali or possible payment for the images after the incident were just that, they said — jokes. And Ms. Tene’s smiles in the selfies didn’t mean she hadn’t been assaulted. They were awkward attempts to de-escalate the situation, Nina Bonelli, the Suffolk County assistant district attorney, said in her closing arguments.

“The kissing, the pulling, the groping — she never asked for it,” Ms. Bonelli said. “She never wanted and she never consented to it. All she wanted was a selfie.”

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Credit…Steven Senne/Pool via REUTERS

If the case were just about money, she added, Ms. Tene wouldn’t have waited so long after that night to sue. And Ms. Tene told her story to the publication Eater only when she realized other women were coming forward.

“This wasn’t some isolated incident,” Ms. Bonelli said. “This was a sexual assault that happened to her and maybe others.”

Tales of Mr. Batali’s late-night drunken parties and brutish behavior with women had circulated for years, but in the wake of investigations into Harvey Weinstein and others like the New Orleans chef John Besh, several women came forward publicly and accused Mr. Batali of sexual harassment on the job, and other forms of sexual abuse. In December 2017, four women told Eater that he had touched them inappropriately as part of a pattern of behavior that they and others said spanned at least two decades.

The next day, a New York Times article detailed the accounts of several women who described incidents of sexual harassment and assault at the Spotted Pig, a favorite Manhattan playground of Mr. Batali and a number of other well-known chefs, musicians and sports stars.

One of those women, Trish Nelson, a former server who waited on Mr. Batali, said she wasn’t surprised at the verdict in the Boston case. “In this country women basically have to be on the path to sainthood in order to be taken seriously and allowed to speak ill of a man’s abusive behaviors, especially a powerful one,” she said.

At the time, Mr. Batali offered an apology. “My behavior was wrong and there are no excuses. I take full responsibility.” It was attached to a newsletter that also included a recipe for pizza dough cinnamon rolls that was widely mocked.

Much has changed in the years since. The New York Police Department investigated three sexual assault complaints against Mr. Batali, but a department official confirmed in 2019 that it had closed those investigations because of a lack of evidence and the statute of limitations.

Later that year, the New York State attorney general, Letitia James, said the businesses built by Mr. Batali and a former partner, Joe Bastianich, revealed a sexualized culture so rife with harassment and retaliation that it violated state and city human rights laws.

As part of a settlement, the two men and the company they once owned together, paid $600,000 to be divided among at least at least 20 women and men who were sexually harassed while they worked at the Manhattan restaurants Babbo, Lupa or Del Posto, which, until it closed permanently in April 2021, was the crown jewel among the men’s holdings.

Catherine McGloin contributed reporting from Boston.

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