In anticipation of a judge’s decision, a round of fresh media reports revisited two lawsuits filed in March against Chiquita Brands International regarding past payments to paramilitary groups in Colombia.
“There is just a lot of speculation that Judge (Kenneth) Marra is about to issue a ruling,” said Paul Wolf, Washington, D.C.-based lawyer for the estates and heirs of Colombian citizens allegedly killed by paramilitary forces supported by Chiquita.
Stories began appearing in The Associated Press, CNN International, CBS News and other outlets in late May.
Marra, a U.S. District Court judge in West Palm Beach, Fla., must rule on a motion by Cincinnati-based Chiquita to dismiss the cases before any trial can begin.
Altogether, about 15 lawsuits have been brought against the company nationwide in the matter.
In 2007, Chiquita agreed to pay a $25 million Justice Department fine to settle a case that dated back to 2003, when the company disclosed that its former banana subsidiary in Colombia had made payments to a terrorist organization.
Chiquita’s general counsel, James Thompson said then the company was forced to make extortion payments to right-wing and left-wing groups in Colombia to protect its employees.
Though Marra had not ruled by June 1, the parties involved were reasserting their views.
“Any suggestion that Chiquita was not extorted is simply false,” Chiquita spokesman Ed Loyd said in a statement. “Chiquita gave in to the extortion demands only to protect its employees from being kidnapped and killed.” The company voluntarily disclosed the payments once it learned they could potentially violate U.S. law, Loyd said. Federal officials acknowledged that Chiquita employees faced harm if payments weren’t made, he said.
Wolf disputes the extortion claim.
“I don't see how Chiquita can plead guilty in a criminal case, and now turn around and say it was extortion,” he said. “I think this is more of a public relations statement than a legal defense.”
“When an employee sent an e-mail around the company, complaining that he didn't want to be involved in financing terrorist organizations,” Wolf said, “the issue was addressed by the board of directors, who decided it was in Chiquita’s business interests to continue making the payments to the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia).”
(CORRECTION: The original article misidentified Paul Wolf.)