LA judge in banana workers case cites threats

By Anthony McCartney
Associated Press Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A California judge said Monday threats had been made against her and witnesses in connection with lawsuits claiming Nicaraguan workers on Dole Foods banana plantations were harmed by pesticides.

Judge Victoria Chaney met with lawyers in closed session regarding new claims of witness tampering, then took the bench to abruptly announce there had been threats to her and to witnesses in radio addresses in Nicaragua.

She said she was notifying the judicial protective unit.

“This appears to be flagrant witness tampering,” she said. “I have even more grave concerns about witness safety than I did before.”

Chaney didn’t reveal the source of the threats, and transcripts of the broadcasts haven’t been released. She did say the tampering didn’t appear to involve plaintiff’s attorney Steve Condie.

Condie said outside court: “I have not seen any evidence that’s credible to me that these witnesses are in danger.”

He said he did not interpret any of the statements revealed in closed session Monday as threats against witnesses or the judge.

Chaney, who has been elevated to the California 2nd District Court of Appeals, returned to Los Angeles Superior Court to hear a motion to dismiss a $2.3 million verdict that Dole said was obtained by fraud.

She said threats were made against multinational corporations, “John Doe” witnesses and the court.

Chaney is considering whether to dismiss the judgment in favor of plaintiffs after a 2007 trial in Los Angeles.

The case is closely related to one she dismissed last year on grounds of fraud. Dole’s lawyers have argued that Los Angeles and Nicaraguan lawyers recruited men to falsely claim they were rendered sterile by pesticides.

Dole attorney Scott Edelman said the radio broadcasts in Nicaragua directly attacked Chaney’s honesty.

“They were trying to intimidate Judge Chaney by calling her immoral and corrupt and aligned with the defendants,” Edelman said.

Chaney has kept secret the names of so-called John Doe witnesses who blew the whistle on the alleged massive fraud against Dole. She had said they were in danger if their identities were revealed.

Edelman said the same radio addresses attempted to identify the witnesses and warned them they should recant their testimony or face reprisals.

On May 14, the Nicaraguan lawyer who is one of those accused of organizing the fraud appeared at a news conference with seven men who claimed they were “John Doe” witnesses and said they lied after being bribed by Dole. There was no confirmation that the men were the John Does, and Edelman said claims that Dole bribed anyone were “categorically false.”

Among items submitted to the judge at Monday’s hearing was a press release distributed at the news conference organized by the attorney, Antonio Hernandez Ordenana. Regarding Chaney, it said: “We believe in divine justice and in God who WILL judge her if she doesn’t rectify matters.”

Dole attorneys are scheduled to file transcripts of three broadcasts in which the alleged threats were made by Friday. Chaney said that if Dole can adequately authenticate the messages, they will be considered as evidence in later hearings.

The recordings were made roughly three weeks ago, Chaney said. She repeatedly said during Monday’s hearing that she was concerned they could lead to reprisals against witnesses and included threats against her and the court.

An ongoing hearing on whether to dismiss the case against Dole was scheduled to resume July 7.

AP Special Correspondent Linda Deutsch contributed to this report.