- Former CEO challenged jury instructions and certain evidence admitted at trial
- 9th Circuit panel said any error at trial was harmless, pointing to the breadth of the evidence
(Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Wednesday upheld the conviction and 40-month prison sentence imposed on the former chief executive of Bumble Bee Foods LLC who played a lead role in a price-fixing conspiracy in the canned tuna market.
The former CEO, Christopher Lischewski, was charged in 2018 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, and a jury convicted him a year later. His appeal challenged the instructions U.S. District Judge Edward Chen gave to the jury and the admission of certain pieces of evidence.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled against Lischewski. Any error at trial was harmless, the panel said, pointing to the breadth of the evidence against Lischewski. Chief Judge Sidney Thomas heard arguments in the case on June 16 with Judges Daniel Bress and Patrick Bumatay.
"The evidence that Lischewski participated in a scheme to fix prices in the canned tuna market was overwhelming," the 9th Circuit said in its unsigned ruling. "In addition to documentary evidence, several of Lischewski's co-conspirators testified at the trial that the conspiracy existed, that Lischewski knew about the conspiracy, and that he was a member of it."
A lawyer for Lischewski, John Cline, a solo practitioner in San Francisco, did not immediately return a message seeking comment. A spokesman for the Justice Department's antitrust division in Washington, D.C., also did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
Prosecutors said Lischewski orchestrated a conspiracy to fix prices on packaged seafood between November 2010 until December 2013.
The scheme involved Bumble Bee executives, and leaders at rivals StarKist Co and Thai Union Group PLC's Chicken of the Sea. StarKist is a subsidiary of the Dongwon Group of South Korea. Two former Bumble Bee executives earlier pleaded guilty for their roles in the scheme and were among those who testified against Lischewski.
The panel pointed to testimony that Lischewski was "substantially involved in orchestrating, implementing and enforcing the price-fixing agreements."
Lischewski was sentenced in June 2020 to serve 40 months in prison and to pay a $100,000 criminal fine. Makan Delrahim, then the head of the Justice Department's antitrust division, said at the time "executives who cheat American consumers out of the benefits of competition will be brought to justice, particularly when their antitrust crimes affect the most basic necessity, food."
Bumble Bee pleaded guilty in May 2017 to price-fixing and agreed to pay a $25 million criminal fine. StarKist was sentenced in September 2019 to pay a $100 million criminal fine for its role in the tuna price-fixing conspiracy.
The case is United States v. Lischewski, 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, No. 20-10211.
For the United States: Bryan Leitch of the Justice Department
For Lischewski: John Cline of the Law Office of John D. Cline