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BUSINESS COURIER OF CINCINNATI: Protesters petition Chiquita for apology

May 27th, 2010

Chiquita Brands International Inc. told protesters at the company’s annual meeting Thursday that it will consider a formal apology and victims fund for the families of people killed by Colombian terrorists.

A Washington-based nonprofit, Witness for Peace, presented a letter with 1,300 signatures at Chiquita’s annual meeting. The group wants Chiquita (NYSE: CQB) to make a formal apology and establish a multimillion dollar fund for victims of Colombian terrorism. It also asked for the Cincinnati-based produce company to fire executives who were involved in making payments to Colombian paramilitary groups.

Chiquita pleaded guilty in 2007 to one count of engaging in transactions with a group designated as a global terrorist organization by the U.S. government. It agreed to pay a $25 million fine in connection with the plea and it faces civil lawsuits seeking billions in damages.

But Chiquita CEO Fernando Aguirre told the group’s spokesman, Ken Crowley, that the company was a victim of extortion in Colombia. He added that the U.S. Department of Justice decided against prosecuting Chiquita executives because they were “as convinced as we were that we were victims.”

“We sympathize with the families of the Colombian individials,” Aguirre said. “We’ll be very happy to listen to your petition. I’ll be happy to read it. I’ll have my executive team go through it as well and in due turn, we’ll reply back to you.”

Crowley thanked Aguirre for considering the petition. As he left the building, he was accompanied by a man who, according to Crowley, identified himself as a Cincinnati Police detective.

“He went into the bathroom with me,” Crowley said. “When I washed my hands, he handed me a paper towel.”

After the meeting, Aguirre said he was not surprised by the protester’s demands. He said it’s similar to questions he gets when he speaks at universities and public functions.

“Most of those people really haven’t heard the true story,” Aguirre said. “Most of those people go away with the explanation of the facts.”

Aguirre added that “the plaintiffs bar” is behind much of the continuing opposition to Chiquita’s handling of issues relating to Colombian terrorist payments.

“There’s a lot of people out there who are trying to make business out of it,” he said.

Other matters addressed at the annual meeting Thursday included the election by shareholders of nine directors and the ratification of PricewaterhouseCoopers as the company’s independent auditor. Shareholders also voted to increase by 1.1 million shares the amount of stock that can be awarded in long-term incentive grants to company executives.

To read the article in the Business Courier of Cincinnati, click here