Monday, December 18, 2000

Complaint calls for sanctions in Chiquita voice-mail access

The Associated Press

        SALT LAKE CITY — A former Chiquita Brands International Inc. lawyer charged with providing a reporter access to the banana company's voice mail system faces sanctions in 3rd District Court.

        George G. Ventura, a Salt Lake City lawyer, has been charged with unprofessional conduct for revealing confidential information about the Cincinnati-based company and “committing a criminal act that reflects adversely on his honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer,” according to a complaint filed Thursday by the Utah State Bar.

        The complaint requests “ap propriate sanctions” against Mr. Ventura, which can range from disbarment to public reprimand, said Kate Toomey of the Office of Professional Conduct.

However, the office did not ask for any specific punishment when filing the complaint, Ms. Toomey said.

        Mr. Ventura declined to comment, stating he has not yet seen the complaint.

        According to the complaint, shortly after his dismissal from Chiquita, Mr. Ventura in 1996 demanded money from the company and threatened to release information to the press if a settlement was not reached.

        A year later Mr. Ventura provided Cincinnati Enquirer reporters with numbers, personal pass codes and instructions on how to access the voice mail of Chiquita's top-level lawyers and executives, the complaint said.

        In June 1999, Mr. Ventura pleaded no contest to four misdemeanor charges of attempted unauthorized access to computer systems. In exchange, Hamilton County prosecutors dismissed 10 felony charges that carried a maximum penalty of 12 years in jail.

        Mr. Ventura was sentenced to two years' probation and 40 hours of community service.

        Mr. Ventura said he provided information to former Enquirer reporter Michael Gallagher, who subsequently wrote articles the Enquirer published in May 1998.

        The articles accused Chiquita of illegal or corrupt business practices, but the company said it was unfairly portrayed in the stories.

        The Enquirer renounced the stories, fired Mr. Gallagher and agreed to pay Chiquita more than $10 million.

        Mr. Gallagher was sentenced to five years' probation after pleading guilty to two felony charges for illegally accessing the company's voice mail system.


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