Bumble Bee pleaded guilty on May 8 to fixing prices on canned tuna. It agreed to pay $25 million in criminal fines to the federal government, which its attorney Ted Hassi revealed Thursday will be paid in installments, as it cannot afford to pay the lump sum.
If the company is sold, the buyer will have to pay another $56.5 million, under the terms of the settlement. Hassi said the additional, conditional fine was tacked on because “the Department of Justice wanted a larger fine but Bumble Bee has the inability to pay a larger fine.”
“The Department of Justice does not want to run a good American company out of business,” Hassi told U.S. District Judge Janis Sammartino. “There is no sale of Bumble Bee; there is no packing up and leaving the country.”
The Thursday hearing, however, was on a civil matter: a status hearing on a class action brought by grocers and suppliers in 2015. They claim the tuna price-fixing conspiracy among Bumble Bee, Tri-Union Seafoods aka Chicken of the Sea, Starkist and others goes as far back as 2004.
The class action, which has survived a motion to dismiss from the tuna companies, involves dozens of major food supplier and grocer plaintiffs, including Wal-Mart, Publix, Kroger, Albertsons, Winn-Dixie and others.
The Department of Justice intervened last year and has filed 750,000 documents — 2.3 million pages — related to its parallel criminal investigation this April, attorneys said at the Thursday hearing.
At the heart of the case are 14 amended complaints, whose more than 1,000 pages include dozens of antitrust claims against the international seafood companies.
While the Thursday hearing was expected to be a run-of-the mill conference to set filing dates and other deadlines, a bit of courtroom drama ensued when Hassi said Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea executives have been contacted by a private investigator trying to gather information on the case.
Hassi suggested the private investigator may have been hired by the plaintiffs.
“We don’t think this kind of thing should be happening,” Hassi said, suggesting it would be a breach legal ethics.
He handed Sammartino a proposed stipulation he asked the class attorneys to sign, which would preclude them and staffs – including private investigators – from contacting current employees, who are represented by counsel. He also asked that plaintiffs’ counsel consult with defense attorneys before contacting former employees, though former employees can talk freely.
One of the class attorneys, William Blechman, called the stipulation “overbroad and not needed.”
“There’s a negative inference from this stipulation that someone has done something wrong,” Blechman said. “We don’t want to see it happening any more than defense counsel does. … It is taking a sledge hammer to solve a problem which requires a scalpel to excise.”
Multiple attorneys for the plaintiffs denied hiring an investigator.
After some back and forth between both sides – including a suggestion the investigator might have been hired by a news agency – Sammartino ordered Hassi to depose the investigator to find out who he was working for.
The judge also struck down a suggestion from another attorney, that court hearings be closed to the public and media, saying there are other ways to seal classified information.
Sammartino pushed back some deadlines, for the attorneys and for her own staff, to ensure they have time to review filings before a motion to dismiss hearing is held this fall.
She said she needed at least a month to go through their court briefs.
“This is not the equivalent of a case I can work up in a week,” the judge said.
“Everyone told me, ‘Oh, it’s not a big deal,’ of all the different states and statutes involved in this case. You have to have a little bit of faith, counsel, that I will do what’s most reasonable and fair to both sides.”
Another status hearing is set for July 26.