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The disturbing inside story of how the tuna giants covered up their alleged crimes

From using the personal email of a VP's wife to sneaking into offices to fax price sheets, read how canned tuna execs allegedly conspired to fix prices and then cover their tracks.

"overnight ... no faxes or emails"

"PARANOID!!!!"

"confidential … do not forward"

‘"PLEASE PROTECT THIS INFORMATION!!!!!!!"

These are parts of some of the alleged messages exchanged between top executives of the big three US tuna companies, who allegedly colluded to fix prices, according to filed amended complaints in ongoing antitrust lawsuit cases.

Recently, dozens of plaintiffs, including Walmart and other major US supermarket chains, filed these new complaints against Bumble Bee Foods LLC, StarKist Company, Dongwon Industries Co. Ltd., Del Monte Corporation, Tri-Union Seafoods LLC d/b/a Chicken of the Sea International, Inc. and Thai Union Group PCL.

The allegations in the amended complaints detailed alleged methods by tuna executives to cover up their tracks.

In one example, a VP of one tuna company allegedly “snuck into the office of a co-tenant in his office building who had nothing to do with [the company]" to use a fax machine to send a VP at a rival tuna firm the future pricing plan document that belonged to a third tuna company.

And there were a number of close personal relationships between key members of the conspiracy, several between people who worked for different tuna companies.

For example, a VP at one tuna company and a pricing consultant at a different tuna company were father and son, and routinely exchanged confidential pricing information between each other during the conspiracy," alleged court documents. “Each of the defendants issued letters that accompanied their price increases that pretextually blamed fishing restrictions for the higher prices."

Follow the developments in this case and catch up on what you missed here.

The allegations in the ongoing Department of Justice price fixing case date back to 2004. What follows are some of the most dramatic allegations contain in the documents. Woven together, they demonstrate the lengths tuna execs allegedly went to not only fix prices but to cover up their behavior.

Paranoia will destroy ya

One tuna company’s then-CEO allegedly complained to his parent company in March 0f 2004 that his company was expected to report a net loss, and "needed a new strategy."

"In internal discussions, [the company’s] management discussed coordinating pricing with [the other two tuna firms] to increase canned tuna prices in the US," the documents alleged.

As part of this new strategy, on May 4, this then-CEO allegedly “instructed his sales team to put out feelers to [the other two tuna firms] to determine whether there was support for a price increase.” One of the executives from his sales team allegedly sent his company’s internal price list, which had not been announced publicly, to the VP of a second tuna firm 10 days later, on May 14.

The VP of this second tuna firm allegedly informed another VP at his company, who then asked to see the price list by email or fax.

"[The executive] knew the illicit nature of the [...] pricing document and instructed his assistant to ‘overnight to [the second VP] ... no faxes or emails.’ [The second VP] replied ‘PARANOID!!!!’”

In a May memo, the CEO of one tuna company allegedly told its parent company, "only a concerted effort that produced a unified front among the Big 3 would allow for the successful implementation of a price increase," stated court documents.

By May 31, before any defendant announced its price increase publicly, the CEO of one tuna firm allegedly confirmed via email to his parent company's CEO and executives that the other two tuna companies "would be significantly increasing prices by approximately 10 percent on both light meat and white meat canned tuna products between June and September 2004.”

He allegedly explained to his parent company “that merely announcing price increases would be insufficient, given the expected pushback from retailers, and that implementing higher prices would require a unified effort among [the three tuna firms].”

“The following day, on June 1, in accordance with their unlawful agreement, [a second tuna parent company] announced a net price increase on [its tuna firm’s] canned tuna products," alleges court documents.

Allegedly this “non-public, highly confidential internal plan for pricing canned tuna” was circulated internally at a different tuna firm among three VPs “in an email dated June 2, 2004. One of these VPs allegedly “knew that he had in his possession a competitor pricing document that he should not have. Consequently, in his email to [the other two VPs, he] emphasized: ‘PLEASE PROTECT THIS INFORMATION!!!!!!!’”

Allegedly “the document described in detail such highly confidential, commercially sensitive information, including sales volumes of the company's top 20 customers; market share; merchandising strategies; and specific marketing plans, among other details.

By July 2004, the three tuna firms had executed the first portion of the collusive price increase. Before September, they executed the second.

"Between August 20, 2004, and August 30, 2004, [the three tuna firms] collusively raised prices on light meat tuna by an additional $2.00 (€1.80) (to $28.00 (€25.21) per case) in accordance with their conspiracy," allege court documents.

" only a concerted effort that produced a unified front among the Big 3 would allow for the successful implementation of a price increase."

Find me an untraceable fax machine

One tuna firm allegedly “told select customers in late January of 2006 that it would increase prices on white meat (albacore) tuna products by about 6 percent, effective as of May 1, 2006. But [one tuna firm needed [the other two tuna companies] to go along with the price increase for it to hold. If either did not, then [that tuna firm] risked losing market share to one or both of them."

In conversations in January and February, VPs at one tuna firm communicated with their counterparts at the other two tuna companies "through a series of telephone calls, meetings, and surreptitious facsimiles to confirm that all three would support another price increase and to coordinate the timing and amount of this increase," alleges court documents

“Similar to the pattern in connection with the June 2004 conspiracy price increase, [one tuna VP] had come into possession of multiple confidential … presentation decks [from a second tuna firm] detailing the [second tuna firm’s] intention and detailed plans to increase prices on white meat tuna and maintain existing prices on light meat tuna (notwithstanding a drop in the price of skipjack that would have justified a price decrease on light meat tuna) effective on May 1, 2006," alleges court documents

To share his competitor’s pricing document with the third tuna company, this tuna VP allegedly “snuck into the office of an acquaintance and cotenant in their building … to use his fax machine, rather than [his] own” to send the pricing document on February 3, 2006. The tuna VP also faxed the document in a manner that did not leave a facsimile line on the paper revealing” who it came from. “This ‘acquaintance’ did not give permission to the tuna VP and “had no connection to the packaged seafood industry other than the fact that he rented office space in the same building," alleges court documents

The plaintiffs allege this act “demonstrated consciousness of guilt as to his and [his company’s] participation in the unlawful conspiracy.”

On March 6, one tuna company allegedly “announced a price increase of approximately 6 percent on white meat tuna products, which followed the prices announced” by another tuna firm. The third tuna company allegedly made its price increase announcement on April 17. The price increases for two tuna firms allegedly “went into effect in the first week of July 2006.”

Trust no one

A January 2008 email between two tuna companies that scheduled conspiracy meetings noted that it would be better if fewer individuals were involved in the meetings in order to keep them "secret," alleges court documents.

"An indication of the extremes to which defendants and co-conspirators went to limit knowledge and communication about the conspiracy is provided by [one tuna company’s] search of [a sales employee’s] computer in June 2008 to ensure that there was no written record of his communications with co-conspirators," alleges court documents

Meet me at Benjamin Steakhouse

“Defendants also discussed their future pricing plans at an April 26, 2010 in-person meeting held at the Four Seasons Hotel in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington D.C., during a meeting of the Tuna Council," allege court documents. The meeting was allegedly attended by VPs from all three tuna firms.

The price increase of one tuna firm was allegedly announced on May 3, 2010, in accordance with its agreement with the other two companies. “On that day, executives for all three companies attended a conference of the National Fisheries Institute (NFI), to which they all belonged.

On May 5, following the final day of the NFI conference, three VPs, one from each of the tuna firms, had dinner at Benjamin Steakhouse in New York City beginning at 6:30 p.m." Defendants used this dinner both to conceal their meeting from other NFI conference attendees, and also to discuss the timing by which the other two tuna firms would follow the price increase," allege court documents.

The court documents list when VPs from the three tuna firms allegedly spoke by phone to discuss the timing and amount of the price increases in May. The lawsuits detail the dates and time lengths of these alleged phone calls.

The senior VP of one tuna company allegedly “promised to reward a VP at his company with two expensive bottles of wine for his role in communicating and colluding” with another tuna firm.

Kroger will pay

On January 19, 2011, the VP of one tuna company used his personal email to send the VP of a second tuna firm as well as a sales employee of a third tuna company price sheets so each of them could confirm “compliance with the conspiracy price increase," the documents allege.

In 2011, the CEO of one tuna company allegedly instructed an employee to “obtain competitive information about the production status of” one Thai tuna facility belonging to a rival.

"As defendants were beginning to discuss the 2011 collusive price increase,” these VPs allegedly forwarded price increase letters from their tuna firms using personal email accounts.

The lawsuit lists dates in February and March, 2011, of when VPs at the three tuna firms allegedly exchanged phone calls and text messages “to reach agreement on the amount by which each would increase prices and also the timing on which each would announce its price increases.”

As a result of the collusive price increase, defendants were able to impose "supracompetitive pricing" on customers, including retailers that required the canned tuna producers to bid or otherwise negotiate for the business," allege court documents

The president and CEO of one tuna company explained to the chairman of his company in 2011, “as a result of the successful collusion, [their company] was able to win business at Kroger that was highly lucrative because [their company] won the business without offering a competitive price, notwithstanding Kroger’s use of a bidding process between defendants," allege court documents

Honey, I miss you

Defendants and co-conspirators also used misleading subject lines on emails to conceal the conspiratorial nature of their communications, alleged court documents.

One example offered by the plaintiffs was an alleged email between VPs from two competing tuna firms, which “used the subject line "Catching Up" in his email in order to deflect attention and conceal the true criminal nature of the communication.”

In another example, a tuna VP allegedly sent his company’s price increase letter to the personal email account belonging to the wife of a sales director from a competing tuna firm. When this sales director left his company for a sales executive position at the third competing tuna firm in July 2012, “he continued to exchange confidential pricing information with [his former company’s VP] from his private email account.

Some emails sent from the personal email account of that sales director’s wife allegedly “used subject lines that sought to make the emails appear if they came from his wife and were personal in nature, such as “Hurry Home!” and “I miss you! Come home!” when, in fact, the message in the body of the email pertained to the conspiracy.”

How much you charging Ahold?

On June 27, the CEO of one tuna company allegedly emailed the CEO of a second tuna firm “to convey what his sales team was hearing about that [second firm’s] pricing to [retailer] Ahold. The purpose of this communication was to ensure that the pricing set by the conspiracy was being followed.”

Price fixing went all the way to the top

In 2014, facing declining skipjack and albacore prices that should have resulted in lower canned tuna prices, an email from the CEO of one tuna firm allegedly noted that the second largest shareholder of the parent company of a different tuna firm “wants to keep prices up at current levels.”

The CEO of one tuna company allegedly was required to provide the chairman of his parent company “a ‘CEO’s Monthly Report’ that gave details on competitive information obtained from [the other two tuna companies] which allowed [the] chairman … to stay informed about the conspiracy agreements.”

In 2014 the chairman allegedly “reached out to [the CEO of another tuna company]...in order to arrange a meeting and to discuss cooperation between [their two tuna firms]," documents alleged.

Follow the developments in this case and catch up on what you missed here.

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