Chef Mario Batali was acquitted on Tuesday (May 10) of sexually assaulting a woman at a Boston bar in 2017 while posing with her for fan selfie photos in the latest of a handful of #MeToo era trials involving US celebrities accused of misconduct toward women.
In the non-jury trial, Judge James Stanton of Boston Municipal Court found Batali, 61, not guilty of a charge of indecent assault and battery brought in 2019, saying the accuser had "significant credibility issues".
Batali displayed no visible reaction as the verdict was announced and left the courtroom surrounded by reporters without making a comment. If convicted, Batali could have faced up to two and a half years in jail and registration as a sex offender.
The trial was the only criminal case brought against Batali, once a fixture of the popular Food Network and a star of the ABC cooking and talk show The Chew, from among multiple #MeToo-era accusations made by women against the celebrity chef.
In the trial, accuser Natali Tene, 32, testified on Monday that Batali forcibly groped her breasts, buttocks and crotch area before inviting her back to his hotel room while drunkenly posing for selfies with her at a bar near Boston's Eataly, the Italian market and restaurant he at the time part-owned.
Tene said she was initially "shocked" and "embarrassed" about the incident and came forward only after the website Eater.com in Dec 2017 detailed allegations by four women who also said Batali had touched them inappropriately over at least two decades.
"I want to be able to take control of what happened and come forward, say my piece, get the truth out there — and everybody be accountable for their actions," Tene testified.
Batali's lawyer, Anthony Fuller, countered that the assault never occurred. Fuller accused Tene of fabricating the assault with "self-serving, biased testimony" to "cash in" with her pending civil lawsuit against the chef seeking more than US$50,000 (S$70,000) in damages.
"She lied for fun and she lied for money," Fuller told the judge in closing arguments.
Fuller sought to undermine Tene's credibility by questioning her about text messages with a friend in which she joked about meeting Batali and discussed selling her photos and bank records showing she dined at Eataly weeks after the event.
Batali opted not to testify during the trial.
Soon after the website Eater.com report, Batali was fired from The Chew and later cut ties with restaurants including New York's Babbo and Del Posto which 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$600,000 to at least 20 former employees to resolve claims by New York's attorney general that their Manhattan restaurants were rife with sexual harassment.
The 2017 explosion of the #MeToo movement exposed patterns of sexual harassment or abuse of women in multiple spheres of American life.
US celebrities convicted in #MeToo-era criminal trials have included film producer Harvey Weinstein and comedian Bill Cosby, though Cosby's conviction was overturned on appeal.
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