Labor Leaders Critical of Patrick, ex-Coca-Cola Board Member
By Frank Phillips
Boston Globe
February 8, 2005

As he explores a potential race for governor in Massachusetts, Deval Patrick is drawing criticism from labor leaders who say he ignored allegations about labor and human rights problems at the Coca-Cola Co. while he was the corporation's vice president and chief legal counsel.

Patrick's nearly four-year tenure at the top echelons of the multinational corporation is considered by strategists to be one of the strongest selling points of his resume. But labor leaders who have crusaded against Coca-Cola and its international operations say he must shoulder responsibility for his role in fending off serious complaints, including its alleged failure to protect workers and labor organizers at a bottling company in Colombia from paramilitary groups.

Coca-Cola denies the allegations and says the courts, in the United States and Colombia, have exonerated the company. But labor leaders and human rights activists are singling out Patrick as he weighs running for governor.

''Deval Patrick got paid a lot of money to help cover up Coca-Cola's misdeeds and crimes and help keep his mouth shut," said Ray Rogers, a longtime labor organizer and human rights activist. Rogers is director of the New York-based Campaign to Stop Killer Coke/Corporate Campaign Inc., a group that claims its mission is to undermine Coca-Cola's image, to cut off their marketsl, and pressure the company's top policy makers, institutional investors, and creditors.

The human rights issues in Colombia are one of several serious charges that confronted Coca-Cola during Patrick's tenure. A whistle-blower who worked for the company, Mark Whitley, alleged that the company committed accounting fraud, created slush funds, and manipulated markets. He was fired and sued Coca-Cola for $44.4 million. The firm also came under fire for its use of marketing strategies that targeted schoolchildren in the United States. Some studies have linked consuming sugar-sweetened soft drinks to growing incidents of obesity in American children.

In India, Coca-Cola has faced charges that it has created serious pollution problems and allowed a high level of pesticides in their products. A Coca-Cola plant is blamed for extracting vast amounts of water from the ground, drying up wells, and adding polluting sludge to fields. Local activists and political leaders are demanding the plant close, but Coca-Cola is fighting them in local courts, saying the charges are ''totally false."

But others who have worked with Patrick defend his actions, saying that he tried to be a progressive force within the company as it dealt with the allegations.

''What he effectively did was to deny responsibility on behalf of the company and then offer to do a fact-finding mission, which by any measure was a relatively progressive way to respond," said Andrew Hanson, an environmental lawyer.

Hanson challenged Patrick at an awards dinner in October 2003, over Coca-Cola's potential culpability in the human rights abuses. At the time, Patrick, who was being honored by Equal Justice Works, a nonprofit group that promotes public service legal work for law students, told the crowd he would send an independent fact-finding group to Colombia. When his superiors at Coca-Cola pulled the plug on the mission last February, Patrick resigned, although agreeing to serve until the end of the year.

At the time of the dinner, the multinational corporation was entangled in a 2001 federal lawsuit filed in Miami alleging that it failed to protect its workers at a Coca-Cola bottling operation in Colombia from serious human rights violations that included the murder of seven labor leaders at the hands of paramilitary thugs over the past dozen years.

In an interview, Patrick defended his role, and pointed to his background as a litigator for civil rights and as the former assistant attorney general for civil rights under President Clinton. ''How can anyone say that I would have an active role in degrading anyone's dignity?" he said.

Patrick said that while at Coca-Cola he was able to balance his legal responsibilities to the company with his sense of justice and commitment to integrity.

''It's unnecessary to separate those two," Patrick said. ''It's the duty of the general counsel to protect the interest of the shareholders. I do not think that requires or has ever required I leave my conscience at the door."

Patrick's resignation early last year shook Coca-Cola's board of directors and precipitated the pending departure of CEO Douglas N. Daft, who had called off the independent investigation in Colombia. The board rallied to Patrick's defense. Patrick said he is convinced the company will revive the mission.

Patrick would not respond directly when asked whether his resignation from Coca-Cola was directly related to the flare-up over his role in creating an independent investigation of the Colombian operations.

The company was dismissed as a defendant in the Colombian case over a year ago, when a judge agreed with its claim that Coca-Cola did have sufficiently controlling interest in the bottling plant. But the issue, driven by anti-Coca-Cola activists and labor leaders, still lingers. The plaintiffs -- a coalition representing those who had been murdered and abused, as well as the United Steel Workers and a Colombian union that has organized the bottle plant -- are appealing the ruling.

Patrick said he worked to defuse the crisis over the whistle-blower suit, settling the case for $100,000 and getting the company to agree to investigate Whitley's charges.

Patrick's defense did little to soften the opposition from some American labor leaders.

Terry Collingsworth, executive director at the International Labor Rights Fund (which is pursuing the legal case), said Patrick failed to act on the allegations and did so only after he was confronted at the Equal Justice Works' dinner. He said Patrick still has not spoken about what Collingsworth says are proven human rights abuses and murders at the bottling plant.

Ron Oswald, the general secretary of the International Workers Federation, a Geneva-based labor group that represents 10 million to 12 million workers around the world -- including several hundred thousands at Coke bottling firms -- offers a different labor perspective. He said his group believes that many of the allegations of human rights and trade union abuses against Coca Cola are ''unfounded" and that, when the issues do arise, the company responds appropriately. He also said Patrick was effective in persuading Coke executives to deal with the issues in Colombia, although failing in the end.

''My impression is that he was a progressive force, and he felt that the only way the company could extract itself from the situation was to create a credible and independent investigation into the events in Colombia," Oswald said. ''In corporate America, that is quite a courageous position."

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