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Comptroller Asks Coca-Cola Co. To Probe Violence

The New York Sun
By JILL GARDINER, Staff Reporter
Issue: 4/29/05

The city's chief financial officer has joined a long-running campaign to persuade the Coca-Cola Company to allow an independent investigation into suspicious violence against union leaders at its plants in Colombia.

The issue centers on bottling plants run by the soft-drink giant's Latin American affiliate, Coca-Cola FEMSA. The unions allege the company was complicit in paramilitary abductions, tortures, and murders that were used to intimidate employees from organizing. Coca-Cola, which has been dogged by the charges since 1995, adamantly denies any involvement.

The city's comptroller, William Thompson Jr., is only the latest on the roster of elected officials, human-rights activists, and college student groups pressing Coca-Cola to allow an independent investigation. He submitted a resolution to Coca-Cola's shareholders on behalf of the city's five pension funds, which own a combined $276.4 million in Coca-Cola shares, calling on the company to submit to an outside review. The resolution was voted down last week during an annual shareholder meeting, at Wilmington, Del., but it won 5.4% of the vote, enough to be heard again. Though executives reported quarterly profits of more than $1 billion, news coverage of the meeting focused on protesters marching outside and critics inside demanding answers on the same issue.

In a statement released to The New York Sun, Mr. Thompson said he was "pleased with the level of shareholder support" the resolution received and noted that the city's five pension funds have a "long and proud tradition of shareholder activism." The assistant comptroller for pension policy, Kenneth Sylvester, said that when there is "mistrust" and "suspicion" of a company, its shareholders are at financial risk.

The accusations also prompted City Council Member Hiram Monserrate, who represents a heavily Latino constituency in Queens, to travel to Colombia last January to talk to plant employees. Mr. Monserrate, a former police officer, said the involvement of the city's pension funds sends a strong message.

"Look, nobody is trying to take Coca-Cola out of business or hurt them," he said from his 17th-floor office at Lower Manhattan. "...We hope they take this opportunity to clean up some of their act in Colombia and in certain parts of the world."

In an e-mail response to questions, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola, Kari Bjorhus, called the allegations "completely false." She said the company brought in an outside counsel to examine the claims and commissioned an overview of practices in its Colombia plants by the Cal Safety Compliance Corporation.

That company, and a law firm hired by Coca-Cola, White & Case LLP, both cleared Coca-Cola and found that employees at the plants were not exposed to violence, Ms. Bjorhus said, so "another investigation would be unnecessary and duplicative."

Company protesters said the exculpatory findings are not credible because both Cal Safety and White & Case were hired by Coca-Cola.

The director of the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, Raymond Rogers, who was removed from the shareholder meeting last week after lambasting the company at a standing microphone, said Coca-Cola had a role in the deaths of eight union leaders. Mr. Monserrate issued a report after returning from Colombia that tallied nine murders.

Ms. Bjorhus pointed to the dismissal of the charges by both Colombian courts and the Colombian attorney general, and noted that a federal district court at Miami ruled that Coca-Cola was not liable.

That decision came in a case brought by the International Labor Rights Fund. The suit against a Coca-Cola affiliate is still pending. The spokeswoman also said Mr. Monserrate's report was incomplete.

As for the resolution, this is not the first time the city comptroller has used the muscle of the city's pension funds to change company policies. Last summer, for example, Winn-Dixie, the Southern supermarket chain, adopted at Mr. Thompson's request a policy to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation.

In that case, Mayor Bloomberg said he supported the goal but did not think the pension funds should be used to achieve it.

A spokesman for the mayor, Jordan Barowitz, said the Coca-Cola resolution had not yet reached Mr. Bloomberg's desk.

The case has also been drawing attention on some college campuses, including New York University. NYU's faculty-student administration senate tabled a vote to ban Coca-Cola products from being sold on campus but has a meeting set up with Coca-Cola officials for next Friday and may reconsider rolling vending machines off campus if the company does not agree to an independent investigation.

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