MANAGUA, Nicaragua – MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) — Several banana workers denied Friday they were part of a conspiracy to defraud Dole Foods Co. by falsely claiming in a damage lawsuit to have worked on a banana plantation and been made sterile by pesticides.
Seven workers at a news conference in Nicaragua, where the contamination allegedly occurred in the 1970s, accused Dole of having tricked or bribed them into casting doubt on claims in the suit that led to a $2.3 million judgment against the company.
They said they wrongly agreed to testify on behalf of Dole in a court case under way in Los Angeles that there had been a fraud in the recruiting or testing of some of the plaintiffs in the suit.
"They tricked and bribed humble farmworkers who, out of poverty, agreed to lie to overturn the ruling," said lawyer Antonio Hernandez. About 1,000 former workers gathered for the Friday event.
A judge in Los Angles is considering throwing out the 2007 damages award for workers exposed to the pesticide DBCP. Some of the workers involved in the U.S. lawsuit against Dole were later found either not to have been made sterile by pesticides or never to have worked at the company's plantations.
Francisco Cano Centeno, 50, who said he worked as a plantation foreman, said Dole offered him money to testify in the latest court case.
"What they wanted was for me to testify that the tests had been altered, that they had not worked on the banana plantation, and that for saying what they wanted, they would give me $225,000," Cano Centeno said.
"I agreed to lie because they know that we are poor and know how to use you. They took me to Costa Rica and there I said everything they asked of me."
He regrets the decision now, Centeno said. "They tricked me, they tricked all of us. They gave me just $300, that's it."
An attorney for Dole denied the company tried to bribe witnesses.
Lawyer Scott Edelman said he could not confirm whether any of the workers at the Nicaragua news conference had testified for Dole in the suit. He said he is prohibited from naming any of the "John Doe" witnesses in the case because a judge has sealed their identities.
But, Edelman said, "any allegation that Dole's investigators bribed or offered to bribe any witnesses is categorically false."
"As the court has already found, these lawyers (for the original damage suit) have recruited fake plaintiffs and threatened and intimidated witnesses not to come forward. This is more of the same," Edelman said. "This is a calculated effort to disrupt current proceedings addressing their conspiracy and to intimidate witnesses and the court."
According to Dole lawyers, the plaintiffs, a Nicaraguan judge and U.S. lawyers conspired to defraud the banana company of millions of dollars.
Banana workers' leader Francisco Palacios said the statements from workers at the news conference prove that the workers who sued Dole told the truth. "Nemagon (a name for the pesticide used at the plantation) did harm us, many are sick," he said.
Associated Press Writer James Beltran in Los Angeles contributed to this report.