WASHINGTON - Chiquita Banana has sued the Securities and Exchange Commission to block the release of documents showing how money was paid by the company to right wing terrorists in Colombia to protect its banana plantations from workers trying to unionize.
The company paid the Justice Department a $25-million fine in 2007, after admitting that it had given Colombian paramilitary groups more than $1.7 million. Chiquita has maintained that the money was extorted by the right-wingers and that it made the payments in an attempt to protect its workers.
A lawsuit by thousands of Colombians whose relatives were killed by Chiquita's right wing squads, however, is working its way through federal court in Florida. The plaintiffs allege the paramilitary groups were paid by Chiquita to keep labor unions out of the banana fields and brutalize workers.
Current and former employees of Chiquita and its former Colombian subsidiary, Banadex are also facing a criminal investigation in Colombia related to the payments.
Chiquita's latest legal move, filed Thursday in federal court in Washington, D.C., attempts to block the SEC from releasing documents tied to the case.
Chiquita supplied the documents to the SEC from 1998 to 2004 in connection with the government's investigation of Chiquita's payments, the lawsuit said.
The National Security Archive, a research institute affiliated with George Washington University, requested the Chiquita documents in 2008 under the Freedom of Information Act. In 2012, after multiple appeals from Chiquita, the SEC decided to release most of the documents.
The SEC did agree to redact some personal information about Chiquita employees and to withhold a subset of documents from the audit and advisory firm KPMG.
But in its lawsuit, Chiquita said the SEC shouldn't release the documents to the National Security Archive because the group is working with the plaintiffs who are suing Chiquita and would misrepresent the documents.
"This lawsuit is Chiquita's effort to ensure that information is disseminated fairly and with appropriate court supervision, so that the truth is not twisted for personal gain," spokeswoman Tiffany Breaux said in an email.
"While the National Security Archive presents itself as an independent research organization, it is actively assisting the plaintiffs' lawyers who are seeking to profit by bringing meritless claims against Chiquita," she wrote.
In 2007, the National Security Archive published thousands of documents from Chiquita that it said showed how the company and right wing paramilitary groups had a mutually beneficial relationship.
Michael Evans, a director at the National Security Archive, said Chiquita's assertion that his organization mischaracterized the earlier Chiquita files or was working with plaintiff's lawyers against the company was "completely disingenuous." He said that the public interest is better served by openness, not secrecy.
"Chiquita admitted doing this," he said of the payments to paramilitary groups. "Our interest in obtaining declassification of these records stems not from some personal vendetta against Chiquita."
Photo: Chiquita bananas in this Aug. 3, 2005 file photo. Amy Sancetta/AP