Washington makes for strange alliances—and even stranger enemies. But this could wind up being the oddest confrontation of all. Chiquita, the world’s largest banana producer, is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to block a 9/11 victims’ bill, The Daily Beast has learned. And outraged supporters of the legislation accuse a senior lawmaker, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, of working with the fruit kings to stand in their way.
According to Congressional lobbying disclosures, Chiquita has spent some $780,000 over the past year and a half lobbying against the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), a bill conceived of and supported by a group of 9/11 victims and families to aid their claims against actors who supported the terrorist attacks.
The result is a stalled piece of terrorism legislation that shows the dizzying influence of a deeply pocketed corporation, and how its tremendous power is prevailing over the interests of the most sympathetic of little guys: 9/11 victims. And it illustrates how the influence of major fruit companies—such a core component of 20th-century American policy that they gave rise to the phrase “Banana Republics”—endures today.
“The path to justice for me and the other 9/11 family members and survivors is being blocked by a banana company. I think Chiquita should mind their own bananas and let justice be served,” said Terry Strada, whose husband was killed in the terrorist attacks.
The major fruit supplier is not in any way connected with 9/11, but in 2007 it pleaded guilty to making over 100 payments to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a right-wing paramilitary group designated by the United States as a terrorist organization.
Chiquita, which had operated in Colombia for over 100 years, began making payments to the terrorist organization after a 1997 meeting between an AUC leader and a senior executive of its Colombian subsidiary. Nearly every month, additional payments followed. The fruit company has maintained that it only made payments due to extortionary threats of violence, and reacted to protect the lives of its workers.
Through a deal in which Chiquita was represented by now-Attorney General Eric Holder, the fruit company agreed to pay a $25 million fine. Chiquita acknowledged that between 1997 and 2004, it made over $1.7 million in payments in cash and checks to the terrorist group.
“Does [AUC] financing make Chiquita liable for the acts of terrorism and murder committed by those terrorists? That’s the question,” said Terry Collingsworth, a lawyer involved in a lawsuit against Chiquita. “To the extent that JASTA changes that or clarifies that standard, it would present a threat to Chiquita.”
By 2003, Chiquita’s most profitable operation was its Colombian subsidiary. That same year, Chiquita officials consulted the opinion of outside lawyers in Washington, D.C., who pointedly advised that the payments were illegal and needed to be halted. They did not stop until Feb. 4, 2004. The subsidiary was sold off later that year.
Having acknowledged payments to terrorists—though they claim to be extorted—Chiquita’s interests conflict with those of 9/11 victims’ families.
The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act was conceived after a group of 9/11 victims’ families ran into a number of legal issues in their efforts to sue supporters of terrorism after the attacks. The group, 9/11 Families United For Justice Against Terrorism, consists of some 6,500 individuals: family members of those killed and those directly injured in the attacks of 9/11.
The group is headed by Strada and Sharon Premoli, who survived the attacks from the 80th floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower.
A primary legal issue for the victims was disagreement amongst varying federal circuit courts over whether groups that aided and abetted terrorists could be found civilly liable. JASTA would clarify the Anti-Terrorism Act by expanding liability against those that had funded terrorists.
“It would also make it clear that victims of terrorist attacks both outside and inside the U.S. could seek damages against perpetrators,” explained Matt House, a spokesman for Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the primary sponsor for the bill in the Senate.
By expanding the liability of groups that have aided and abetted terrorism, the bill incidentally became relevant to Chiquita, with its history of paying off the terrorists of the AUC.
Chiquita certainly appeared to respond as if JASTA were a threat. In the months after the bill was reintroduced in the House and Senate, the fourth quarter of 2013, Chiquita spent $450,000 hiring lobbyists from Covington and Burling, a high-powered white shoe law firm. [Disclosure: The Daily Beast is also a client of Covington and Burling.] Chiquita acknowledged working with Congressional staff on JASTA.
“Chiquita supports the stated objectives of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act,” the company said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “Chiquita’s sole interest is to ensure that the legislation does not inadvertently promote litigation against individuals and companies who, like Chiquita, were victims of extortion by terrorist groups.”
According to a Congressional source with direct knowledge of the lobbying, the fruit conglomerate approached lawmakers with Chiquita facilities in their districts—as well Congress members with influence over their senior colleagues like Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the primary sponsor of JASTA in the House.
The lobbyists appeared to find an ear in the office of senior lawmaker Rep. Bob Goodlatte. Goodlatte chairs the House Judiciary Committee, where JASTA now sits languishing.
In November, a group representing 9/11 Families United For Justice Against Terrorism met with Zachary Somers, a senior aide to Goodlatte.
One member of the group, a minister, wept openly. At another point, one attendee blurted out that that the only part of her husband’s body that was recovered was his head. Meanwhile, the group claims, Somers acted dismissive and at one point in the meeting picked lint off his jacket. Then Somers said his boss had objections to their bill.
When asked if Chiquita had approached Goodlatte’s office, and whether Chiquita had been the only group to express concerns, Somers replied affirmatively on both counts, according to three participants in the meeting. (Somers did not respond to a request for comment, but a Goodlatte aide denied he was rude to the families.)
In December the same 9/11 group met with Goodlatte himself in Lynchburg, Va., which is in the congressman’s district. Some of the victims’ families characterized the congressman as being short with the group, at one point remarking to one of the 9/11 widows that she was not even one of his constituents.
When Deanna Wirth, an educational aide and constituent whose father died in the North Tower, began talking about her father’s last words before death, she claims Goodlatte responded, “Weren’t you compensated for that?”
As an adult child of a 9/11 victim, Wirth was not compensated. Her face dropped.
“I just thought it was a rude question. I couldn’t believe that came out of his mouth,” Wirth said. “He was very rude, and in my opinion, not very compassionate about what we went through.”
Goodlatte’s office declined to answer direct questions about their position on JASTA, on whether they had met with Chiquita representatives, or on his conduct with the 9/11 victims’ families.
Last month, Goodlatte’s office quietly let it be known on Capitol Hill that the chairman would not support progress on JASTA, a disappointing setback for the 9/11 victims’ families group.
A Goodlatte aide hinted that the chairman opposed the bill, but would not confirm this in a statement to The Daily Beast.
“The Chairman and the lead staffer on this issue examined the legislation and received feedback from various companies and organizations about the effects of the legislation,” said a House Judiciary aide. “Numerous high-level groups in the business community oppose the legislation because the breadth of the proposed changes risks exposing law-abiding U.S. companies to frivolous lawsuits and potentially massive civil liability.”
Asked which companies and groups oppose the legislation, Goodlatte’s office said 20 groups opposed JASTA but refused to name any of them.
“Goodlatte needs to permit the bill [to move] through his committee, but he has expressed reluctance to do so,” said Premoli.
Other lawmakers have declined to speak publicly about JASTA. Rep. Peter King’s office declined to discuss its own bill. “The ongoing conversations and negotiations are staying private,” said King spokesman Kevin Fogarty.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, did not respond to a request for comment.
In September 2012, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. But the legislation stalled, and was reintroduced in the House and Senate last fall—only to find fresh opposition from an unlikely source.
—with additional reporting by Ben Jacobs