WASHINGTON — The Justice Department said Tuesday it will not prosecute 10 Chiquita Brands International executives involved in the company's now-defunct payoff of Colombian terrorists protecting its most profitable banana-growing operation.
The government's long-awaited decision was part of a sentencing memo urging U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth to fine Chiquita $25 million and have the company serve five years probation for its illegal deals. The sentencing hearing in front of Lamberth is set for Sept. 17.
If accepted, the fine would mark the largest criminal penalty ever imposed under U.S. global terrorism sanctions laws.
Prosecutors dropped potential charges against the executives _ most of whom have not been publicly identified _ "based solely on the merits and the evidence" against them, said Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd.
"The government gave serious consideration to bringing additional charges in this matter, but in the exercise of its prosecutorial discretion, has decided not to do so after an extensive investigation and after considering critical evidence and information that Chiquita provided," Boyd said.
Fernando Aguirre, Chiquita's chairman and chief executive officer, said in a statement from its Cincinnati headquarters that the company was pleased with the decision.
"We believe this is the right decision and one that reflects the good faith efforts of the company _ and its officers, directors and employees _ to address a very difficult situation involving the lives and safety of our employees," Aguirre said.
Chiquita voluntarily alerted the Justice Department in April 2003 of the deals, which by that time had been ongoing for 15 years. The banana company admitted to paying about $1.7 million between 1997 and 2004 to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known as AUC for its Spanish initials.
The AUC has been responsible for some of the worst massacres in Colombia's civil conflict and for a sizable percentage of the country's cocaine exports. The U.S. government designated the AUC a terrorist group in September 2001. Additionally, Chiquita made payments to the National Liberation Army, or ELN, and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as control of the company's banana-growing area shifted.
Chiquita has said it was forced to make the payments and was acting only to ensure the safety of its workers.
Court documents list 10 unidentified company employees initially suspected of participating in the illegal deals and helped conceal them on company books. Prosecutors would not identity them or say whether they remain with Chiquita.
Former Chiquita general counsel Bob Olson has been identified as one of the 10. His lawyer, Robert Litt, said Olson helped in Chiquita's decision to report the deals to the Justice Department.
"No reasonable person could consider this criminal conduct," Litt said Tuesday.
He said Chiquita "was extorted by paramilitary terrorists who threatened the lives of its employees."