Key witnesses identified in price-fixing case against former Bumble Bee CEO Chris Lischewski
Former Bumble Bee Foods executives Kenneth Worsham and Walter Scott Cameron will serve as the U.S. government’s key witnesses in the price-fixing trial of former Bumble Bee CEO Chris Lischewski, according to a motion recently filed by Lischewski’s attorneys.
Worsham formerly served as Bumble Bee’s senior vice president of trade marketing, while Cameron was the company’s senior vice president of sales. Both were indicted and pleaded guilty to price-fixing in 2017. As part of their pleas and in return for reductions in their sentences, each agreed to testify in future trials stemming from the uncovering of the price-fixing conspiracy.
Chicken of the Sea International President and CEO Shue Wing Chan and former StarKist Senior Vice President of Sales Stephen Hodge are also identified by Lischewski’s lawyers as cooperating witnesses.
Chicken of the Sea avoided criminal charges by serving as the whistleblower in the alleged conspiracy as part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Corporate Leniency Program. Information provided by Chicken of the Sea instigated the investigation of price-fixing in the U.S. packaged seafood industry. In exchange for leniency, Chicken of the Sea was required to cooperate with DOJ’s antitrust investigation of the packaged seafood industry in the United States.
Hodge also pleaded guilty to price-fixing in 2017 and agreed to cooperate with the government investigation in exchange for leniency. The guilty pleas of Hodge, Worsham, and Cameron all included admissions that they discussed the prices of packaged seafood sold in the United States and agreed to fix the prices of those products. The guilty pleas state that between 2011 and 2013, Hodge, Worsham, and Cameron negotiated prices and issued price announcements for packaged seafood in accordance with the agreements they reached, along with unnamed co-conspirators.
Bumble Bee Foods and StarKist have also both pleaded guilty to fixing canned tuna prices between 2011 and 2013. Bumble Bee was fined USD 25 million (EUR 22.8 million), while StarKist’s fine is still being determined, but is expected to range between USD 50 million and USD 100 million (EUR 44.3 million and EUR 88.5 million). Both companies have said they are cooperating with the DOJ’s ongoing investigation.
The revelations of the government’s plans for who it intends to use as witnesses in the case against Lischewski came in a motion by his lawyers to compel prosecutors to release more information about its interactions with those witnesses, including details about their plea and leniency negotiations.
“The government has refused to produce any draft plea and amnesty agreements or any communications or documents related to the negotiation of these agreements with the government's cooperating witnesses,” they wrote in an 8 April motion. “Accordingly, Mr. Lischewski is in the dark as to the motivating factors for key witnesses' testimony in this case.”
Specifically, Lischewski’s defense team is looking for draft agreements and notes from negotiations with the prosecution’s key witnesses.
“Information related to plea and amnesty agreement negotiations is favorable to Mr. Lischewski because it reveals the witness’s motivations and may explain variations in a witness’s story. But the government has withheld from Mr. Lischewski draft agreements and other communications from the negotiations leading to the final agreements,” they wrote. “Instead, the government has produced only final plea and amnesty agreements, which is insufficient. With the government’s cooperating witnesses’ credibility front-and-center in this case, information regarding plea and amnesty negotiations must be disclosed because that information may ‘cast a shadow’ on an accomplice witness’s credibility in a manner that disclosure of only the [final] agreement itself would not accomplish.”
Regarding Worsham and Cameron, Lischewski’s lawyers said they believe their testimony will be “key” and that details of the numerous meetings they and their representatives had with prosecutors could shine light on the reliability of their testimony.
“The evidence produced thus far shows that the government’s plea and amnesty negotiations with cooperators spanned several months (or years) and, during that time, it appears that the cooperating witnesses’ testimony evolved considerably. Thus, it is all the more likely that the requested information will reveal additional inconsistencies and explain the cooperators’ motive for their shifting testimony—evidence that is undoubtedly favorable for the defense,” they wrote. “It appears to have taken a great deal of time and effort with these two violators of the antitrust laws to arrive at what the government will contend at trial is the truth about Mr. Lischewski. There is precious little corroboration for what they will say. Mr. Lischewski is entitled to know with as much specificity as possible what was said back and forth during the nearly 50 occasions in which Mr. Worsham Mr. Cameron, and their agents discussed their testimony with these prosecutors. To date, the government has studiously avoided any such candid disclosure.”
The DOJ’s prosecuting attorneys fought back against Lischewski’s demands for the additional documents in their own filing.
“This belief that the government withheld original and contemporaneous notes and instead provided to him ‘sanitized’ documents assembled long after the fact appears to be the factual linchpin of defendant’s motion and his requests to the court. [The] defendant cites no factual basis for this bald assertion in either his motion or the attached declaration. Nor can he, since it is based on a fundamental mischaracterization of the government’s notetaking practices in this case,” they wrote. “To the extent that defendant’s demand for ‘original’ and ‘contemporaneous’ notes encompasses handwritten attorney notes, his request is premature and overbroad and should likewise be denied.”
The DOJ attorneys said any disclosures of other materials requested by Lischewski’s legal team, such as grand jury subpoenas, could violate federal rules on secrecy of criminal procedures. Lischewski’s lawyer is not the arbiter of what can be disclosed, they argued in their filing.
“He cannot simply deputize himself to police the government’s disclosures and pry into its investigative files absent some articulated facts or showing of materiality that would entitle him to broader disclosures,” they wrote.
In a separate meeting with the judge overseeing the case, Lischewski attorney Elliot Peters accused the prosecuting attorneys of dragging their feet in disclosing important documents.
“Are they going to continue to delay and more or less try to sandbag us until the last minute?" Elliot Peters said in a 9 January hearing.
At the hearing, Peters reemphasized the importance of witness testimony in the case.
“All of the evidence, really, that matters I think is going to come in through…former testimony. Executives who’ve made deals with the government either to get immunity, or pleaded guilty. And email communications which don’t involve Mr. Lischewski but the government is going to try to offer as co-consiprator statements. And there are like millions of documents,” he said. “Why shouldn’t they tell [the court] and us what this – the evidence in this case is going to be? It’s only fair.”
A hearing on the request is scheduled for 12 June, with a trial date tentatively set for 4 November. U.S. District Court Judge Edward M. Chen of the Northern District of California, in San Francisco, California, is hearing the case.
A separate motion filed by Lischewski’s lawyers in March seeks to have the case dismissed on First Amendment grounds.