By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
The Justice Department notified Chiquita Brands International yesterday that it will not seek to criminally charge its former top executive and other former high-ranking officers over the company's payment of bribes to a Colombian organization on the State Department's list of terrorist groups.
The multibillion-dollar banana company pleaded guilty earlier this year to making $1.7 million in illegal payments to a right-wing Colombian paramilitary group from 1997 to 2004. Until now, three of its officers were under investigation for authorizing and approving the payments to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known as AUC, after federal prosecutors warned them in April 2003 that such bribes violated the nation's anti-terrorism laws.
"The United States gave serious consideration to bringing additional charges in this matter," prosecutors wrote in a memo filed in court yesterday. "In the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, the United States has decided not do so."
Of the 10 company officials with potential liability, those most under scrutiny were former Chiquita chief executive Cyrus Freidheim, former general counsel Robert Olson and former board member Roderick M. Hills, according to sources close to the probe. They and Chiquita had argued that the three men, who had disclosed the "protection money" payments to Justice officials, kept them going while awaiting advice that never came from then-Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff and then-Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson.
Roscoe C. Howard Jr., then U.S. attorney for Washington, had pushed his office to prosecute the case and said he equated financing the AUC with financing murder. The AUC has been on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations since September 2001, and Colombian authorities have blamed it for thousands of killings.
Cincinnati-based Chiquita, with $4.5 billion in annual revenue, agreed under its guilty plea in March to pay a $25 million fine and adopt a large-scale corporate integrity program. But U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth warned prosecutors in June that he could not decide an appropriate fine until he knew how the government had decided to handle the Chiquita officers who had continued the AUC payments.
In the plea agreement, prosecutors had revealed the officers' actions but had not identified Hills, Freidheim or Olson by name.
Hills's attorney, Reid Weingarten, said yesterday that the decision was "the right decision and justified by the facts in the case." Olson's attorney declined to comment before speaking to his client.