Antitrust Law Daily Former Bumble Bee CEO convicted of conspiring to fix tuna prices
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Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Former Bumble Bee CEO convicted of conspiring to fix tuna prices

By Jeffrey May, J.D.

Sentencing for Christopher Lischewski is set for April 8, 2020.

The former CEO of Bumble Bee Foods, LLC, Christopher Lischewski, has been convicted of participating in a conspiracy to fix prices of canned tuna. Following a four-week trial, a jury in the federal district court in San Francisco yesterday concluded that the price fixing conspiracy included Lischewski as well as StarKist Co. and Chicken of the Sea. Bumble Bee and StarKist Co., as well as three other industry executives, have already pleaded guilty for their roles in the conspiracy. The individuals who were charged testified in Lischewski’s trial (U.S. v. Lischewski, Case No. 3:18-cr-00203-EMC).

The case against Lischewski was hard-fought. Lischewski was indicted in May 2018. He was charged with participating, as head of Bumble Bee, in the conspiracy. According to the Justice Department, Lischewski authorized, ordered, and consented to the participation of subordinates to set the price of packaged seafood through a series of meetings and communications.

Lischewski had filed a motion to dismiss the case on the ground that the indictment improperly joined two or more distinct offenses in a single count. Alternatively, Lischewski argued that the rule of reason should apply in the case. Earlier this year, the court rejected the duplicity argument and that the rule of reason as opposed to the per se rule applied to the indictment.

The investigation that led to Lischewski’s conviction was apparently set off by a proposed merger in the industry. Government concerns about the competition in the marketplace were disclosed, when in late 2015, Thai Union Group P.C.L.—the owner of Tri-Union Seafoods LLC, doing business as Chicken of the Sea International—and Lion Capital LLP mutually agreed to terminate plans to acquire Bumble Bee Foods. William Baer, then assistant attorney general in charge of the Antitrust Division, stated: "Our investigation convinced us—and the parties knew or should have known from the get go—that the market is not functioning competitively today, and further consolidation would only make things worse."

In addition to the criminal charges that followed, a number of private suits were filed, alleging that Bumble Bee Foods, Tri-Union Seafoods, and StarKist collusively raised prices. A series of settlement have since been announced.

As part of the probe, in addition to the charges against Lischewski, the government brought charges against Bumble Bee Foods LLC and StarKist Co. and executives Walter Scott CameronKenneth Worsham, and Stephen L. Hodge. Bumble Bee agreed to a criminal fine of at least $25 million. StarKist was ordered to pay $100 million—the statutory maximum. The company had unsuccessfully argued that it did not have sufficient resources to cover the fine.

The court has ordered that post-trial motions are to be filed by January 13, 2020, with replies due by February 24, 2020. A motion hearing is scheduled for March 18, 2020, and sentencing is set for April 8, 2020.

Attorneys: Leslie Allen Wulff, U.S. Department of Justice, for the United States. John Watkins Keker (Keker & Van Nest LLP) for Christopher Lischewski.

Companies: Bumble Bee Foods LLC; Tri-Union Seafoods LLC; StarKist Co.

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