OHIO–A former lawyer for Chiquita Brands International who admitted to helping a reporter obtain voice-mail messages illegally from the banana company that were used in a Cincinnati Enquirer story pleaded no contest to reduced charges in early July.
George Ventura accepted a deal with prosecutors in which he pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor charges of attempted unauthorized access to computer systems. As part of the deal, prosecutors dropped 10 felony charges that could have resulted in a prison term of more than 12 years. The former Chiquita lawyer was sentenced to two years of unmonitored probation and 40 hours of community service.
The Cincinnati Post reported that when Ventura agreed to plead no contest to the reduced charges, he also made another “secret promise” to Chiquita that he would never again disclose any of the information he gave to the Cincinnati Enquirer. Chiquita spokesman Joe Hagin told the Post that the company will not pursue further civil claims against the attorney and has “settled its civil claims against Mr. Ventura on a satisfactory basis.”
Prosecutors had accused Ventura of providing the Cincinnati Enquirer with the security access codes for the voice-mailboxes of Chiquita executives. He was also accused of telling Enquirer reporters how to tape the voice-mail messages and avoid detection. Ventura had knowledge of the codes because he was Chiquita’s legal counsel in Honduras between 1991 and 1996.
The Cincinnati Enquirer used information from Ventura combined with the voice mail messages of at least five Chiquita employees to produce a May 1998 special section that was critical of Chiquita’s business practices.
The following month, the Enquirer renounced the Chiquita stories, fired reporter Michael Gallagher and paid the banana company more than $10 million. The Enquirer also said that the stories were based, at least in part, on stolen voice-mail messages.
Gallagher pleaded guilty in September to two felony charges — one for unauthorized access to computer systems and another for unlawful interception of communications — and could get up to two- and-a-half years in prison at his sentencing, which will occur in mid- July. Gallagher had also cooperated with prosecutors and revealed the identities of his confidential sources, including Ventura.
Ventura’s attorney now says that he is likely to sue the Cincinnati Enquirer and its parent company, Gannett, because the newspaper and its reporters failed to maintain the confidentiality they promised. The Enquirer’s president and publisher denied that either the newspaper or its parent company had revealed any confidential sources.
Ventura, now a Utah attorney, was fired from the Salt Lake City law firm where he worked after he was named as Gallagher’s source. In addition, the Utah Bar Association is investigating Ventura’s actions.
Daniel Breyer, the special prosecutor examining the controversy, said that the mid-July sentencing of Gallagher could end the criminal prosecutions in the case.
Chiquita’s civil suit against Gallagher is pending.
(Ohio v. Ventura; Ohio v. Gallagher)