Does Colombia Want Lindner?

With the Colombian government continuing to press U.S. officials for the right to question certain Chiquita Brands International executives in connection with an admission they made payments to terrorist groups, there’s been no media report on whether the executives sought include Carl Lindner Jr. and his sons.

A federal judge recently fined Chiquita $25 million for making payments to drug traffickers and terrorist groups in the South American nation to protect its banana plantations there. Chiquita paid $1.7 million to the groups over the course of several years.

Colombian prosecutors are mulling whether to file an extradition request for the executives, which the U.S. government probably would oppose. The Lindner family still was involved with managing Cincinnati-based Chiquita at the time of at least some of the payments, so exactly who is the subject of the Colombian inquiries should be a hot topic for local media outlets.

Lindner and his family are frequent big-money contributors to the campaigns of President Bush and several prominent Republican politicians.

So far, only one former Chiquita executive has been publicly named: Cyrus Freidheim Jr., who headed the company from 2002 to 2004. Freidheim is now chief executive of Sun-Times Media Group, publisher of The Chicago Sun-Times. In an act of journalistic integrity, The Sun-Times voluntarily announced that Freidheim was a likely target.

More puzzling, court documents indicate the payments continued for months after Chiquita made the admission to U.S. authorities in April 2003. Federal officials list the payments occurring from 1997-2004.

CityBeat has attempted to contact Colombian prosecutors to learn the names of the executives sought for questioning.

One possible reason explaining the timidity of local media to investigate the issue further, of course, was the unprecedented settlement that The Cincinnati Enquirer agreed to with Chiquita in 1998. After The Enquirer published a searing multi-part series into Chiquita’s business practices in South America, the newspaper discovered that lead reporter Michael Gallagher had illegally hacked into Chiquita’s voice mail system to get some of the information. With Chiquita threatening to press criminal charges, The Enquirer agreed to pay Chiquita $14 million and “renounce” the series through a front-page apology that ran for three days.

As part of the June 29, 1998, 19-page settlement with Chiquita, The Enquirer also agreed to keep all reporter’s notes, audio recordings and other materials used in creating the series in a secure location, only allowing access to the material with Chiquita’s permission. The materials were to be destroyed on the settlement’s fifth anniversary, in June 2003.

Under the settlement, The Enquirer agreed not to use the materials as the basis for any future articles about Chiquita, effectively preventing any further investigation by the company’s hometown newspaper.

The settlement reads: “None of the series materials shall be published or used as a basis for any story in any reporting by The Enquirer except that The Enquirer may refer to the published articles to provide context for future stories, columns or editorial cartoons or incident to the coverage of subsequent events and may publish articles from other news sources, such as news services and letter writers independent of the Gannett parties.”

It later states The Enquirer was allowed to publish articles about Chiquita that included “factual information which is publicly available from other sources.”

Also, Gannett — The Enquirer’s owner — had to publish the apology in three European newspapers of Chiquita’s choosing.

CityBeat Editor John Fox wrote extensively about the settlement in a 2003 column.

The litany of carefully researched allegations against Chiquita in the original Enquirer series is damning. As Amy Goodman wrote in a recent column for the New York Press Web site:

“Chiquita has had a long history of criminal behavior. It was the subject of an extraordinary expose in its hometown paper, The Cincinnati Enquirer, in 1998. The paper found that Chiquita exposed entire communities to dangerous U.S.-banned pesticides, forced the eviction of an entire Honduran village at gunpoint and its subsequent bulldozing, suppressed unions, unwittingly allowed the use of Chiquita transport ships to move cocaine internationally and paid a fortune to U.S. politicians to influence trade policy.”

In an appalling journalistic lapse after The Enquirer debacle, no national media outlet that had the resources to examine the allegations did so, seemingly giving the company a free pass.

Just a small portion of the series’ allegations depended upon information obtained from the pilfered voice mails. Even in that instance, Gallagher’s behavior does have precedent. As media columnist Bruce Shapiro noted in a July 1998 article for Salon.com:

“Covert leaking of proprietary information from inside corporate sources is basic to investigative reporting going all the way back to Ida Tarbell’s muckraking classic, History of the Standard Oil Company. If Edward R. Murrow was unwilling to trespass on private property, his classic documentary Factories in the Field could not have been filmed. If a young Geraldo Rivera had been unwilling to invade the privacy of a psychiatric ward, patients at Willowbrook State Hospital in New York would still be living in filth and degradation.”

Shapiro continues, “Mike Gallagher is hardly the first reporter to decide that the larger stakes in confirming a story — in this case a story alleging bribery of foreign officials, the poisoning and exploitation of workers and the subversion of countries’ laws — dictated some comparatively modest legal transgression of his own.”

And if The Enquirer had to pay $14 million for illegally accessing voice mails, shouldn’t the fine for funding terrorists and drug traffickers be steeper than $25 million?

— Kevin Osborne

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One Comment on “Does Colombia Want Lindner?”

  1. Bengal Berding Says:

    Nice one Kevin! How did you like the Cincinnati Beacon’s Chiquita round up?


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