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Chiquita to pay fine for deals with militants

The company agrees to a $25-million settlement in a U.S. inquiry on whether it knowingly paid Colombian groups deemed to be terrorist.

March 15, 2007|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Chiquita Brands International Inc. said Wednesday that it would pay a $25-million fine to settle a long-running Justice Department investigation of whether it knowingly paid "protection" money to Colombian paramilitary and rebel groups designated by the U.S. as terrorist.

In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Cincinnati-based fruit and vegetable conglomerate also said it would cooperate with the government "in any continuing investigation into the matter."

The agreement to cooperate is significant, one senior Justice Department official said, because investigators continue to focus on whether several current or former high-ranking company officials knowingly engaged in a scheme to pay at least $1.7 million to a right-wing paramilitary group and a left-wing rebel faction to keep them from targeting Chiquita employees and facilities in volatile parts of Colombia.

Both groups, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, are on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations and have been engaged in systematic extortion from businesses and local governments for years.

The Justice Department official and other authorities said the Chiquita investigation was the most prominent, and perhaps only, inquiry in which a U.S. corporation is believed to have provided financial assistance to a foreign terrorist organization since the Sept. 11 attacks. President Bush has said repeatedly that any financial supporter of a terrorist group should be prosecuted as severely as any terrorist operative.

"Obviously it's a sensitive case, an important case," said a second Justice Department official. Both men spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss any aspect of the investigation.

Earlier Wednesday, federal prosecutors filed a document of criminal information against Chiquita as a corporation, charging it with "engaging in transactions with a specially designated global terrorist."

Unlike a federal grand jury indictment, a criminal information is traditionally worked out through discussions between prosecutors and defense lawyers, followed by a guilty plea. A hearing has been set for Monday before U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth in Washington.

The Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington had no comment Wednesday on either the criminal filing or the investigation.

Chiquita's chairman and chief executive, Fernando Aguirre, described the plea agreement as "a reasoned solution to the dilemma the company faced several years ago."

Aguirre said in a statement that the "protection payments" were made by the company's Colombian banana-producing subsidiary, which it sold in 2004. The subsidiary had been forced to make the payments to protect the lives of its employees, he said.

"The payments made by the company were always motivated by our good-faith concern for the safety of our employees," Aguirre said.

With annual revenue of approximately $4.5 billion, Chiquita said the fine would not affect its global operations. It is a leading international marketer and distributor of fruits and salads, and is one of the world's top sellers of bananas. The company's stock, which closed Wednesday at $12.75 in regular trading on the New York Stock Exchange, rose 5 cents in after-hours trading.

Chiquita has had a history of controversial dealings in South America that date back decades. Its precursor, the United Fruit Co., was alleged to have worked with the CIA to overthrow an anti-capitalist government in Guatemala, which it feared was a threat to its banana-growing enterprise there, in 1954.

In 1975, a U.S. investigation revealed that the company had bribed the president of Honduras in a scandal that came to be known as Bananagate. And in 1998, the Cincinnati Enquirer published an 18-page special section on Chiquita that alleged a host of questionable business practices and improprieties, including bribing foreign officials.

Chiquita portrayed the articles as unfair and inaccurate and forced the Enquirer to run an apology and retraction and pay a settlement said to be more than $10 million. But critics of the company have noted that it never fully refuted many of the published allegations.

In the 18-page criminal filing submitted Wednesday, prosecutors said that Chiquita officials came to them in 2003 seeking advice on what to do about the payments. But they said that at least several high-ranking company officials knowingly engaged in the practice long after Chiquita's lawyers told them it was illegal and should be stopped.

Prosecutors said Chiquita initially paid protection money to the left-wing rebel group, known by its Spanish-language acronym FARC.

But after the right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known as the AUC, took control of parts of Colombia where Chiquita had massive banana farms, the company began paying that group, according to the court filing.

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