LOS ANGELES (AP) — Lawyers for Dole Foods urged a judge Thursday to quickly conclude hearings in a case involving purported banana workers in Nicaragua to protect those who blew the whistle on an alleged multimillion dollar fraud.
In documents filed with Judge Victoria Chaney, the lawyers said a manhunt was being conducted in Nicaragua for the so-called John Doe witnesses, who were being threatened with reprisals unless they recanted their testimony.
The lawyers cited purported statements by Nicaraguan lawyer Antonio Hernandez Ordenana during a march and news conference last month in which he declared his investigators were working to identify the John Does and bring them before Nicaraguan courts.
Dole lawyers said Ordenana boasted about obtaining "absoluciones" or sworn statements from some of the John Does saying they had been promised payment by Dole to give false testimony.
Dole attorneys denied anyone was paid.
Attempts to reach Ordenana were unsuccessful.
Lawyer Steve Condie, who also represents plaintiffs, confirmed Ordenana was looking for the witnesses and may have found them. But no one had been harmed, he said.
"I don't see anybody being threatened," Condie said.
Dole's lawyers have argued that men in Nicaragua were recruited to falsely claim they were rendered sterile by pesticide used by Dole.
Judge Chaney, who has been elevated to the California 2nd District Court of Appeals, returned to Los Angeles Superior Court to hear a motion to dismiss the $2.3 million verdict that Dole said was obtained by fraud.
She presided over a related trial that was dismissed last year on the same grounds.
The documents filed Thursday said the judge had previously ordered the names of John Doe witnesses sealed and imposed a protective order to prohibit Ordenana and his colleague, California attorney Juan J. Dominguez, from learning the identities.
The motion claimed Ordenana and Dominguez violated the court order by launching a manhunt for the witnesses.
Dominguez said witnesses were "scared for their lives, not because of us, but because of Dole."
The Dole lawyers submitted a transcript of a radio program showing Ordenana suggested in an interview that the witnesses would be abandoned by Dole and might be the subject of assassination plots by the company.
Ordenana also advised the witnesses that one of them had died because of a lack of medicine when he fell ill, according to the transcript.
The recordings were made roughly three weeks ago, Chaney said during a hearing on Monday.
"This is witness tampering, which is unlawful," the Dole attorneys said.
A press release distributed as part of the march accused Chaney of being corrupt and warned: "We believe in divine justice and in God who WILL judge her if she doesn't rectify matters."
The judge said she also felt she had been threatened and was reporting the matter to judicial protective services.
The documents filed Thursday said, "Conditions in Nicaragua are deteriorating rapidly and it is necessary to bring the litigation to an expeditious conclusion in order to protect the John Doe witnesses."
An ongoing hearing on whether to dismiss the case was scheduled to resume July 7.
AP Writer Anthony McCartney contributed to this story.