LOS ANGELES (AP) — A Texas lawyer testifying against Dole Foods denied Tuesday that he was one of a group that allegedly conspired with a Nicaraguan judge to commit a massive fraud against the firm.
Charles Benton Musslewhite denounced the claims of a conspiracy with the judge to fix sperm tests for men claiming to have been sterilized by exposure to pesticides on Dole banana plantations.
Musslewhite, who was one of several lawyers who filed suits on behalf of the purported banana workers, vouched for the reputation of the Nicaraguan judge, Socorro Toruno, and said he does not believe she directed a conspiracy to fix laboratory test results.
"To me, it's just a bunch of bunk," said Musslewhite, who flew in from Houston, he claimed, to defend his good name.
He was called to the stand by appellate attorney Steve Condi, who has taken on the cause of six purported banana workers that won a jury award of $2.3 million in a 2007 trial.
Judge Victoria Chaney, who threw out a similar case last year before it reached trial, is considering whether to reverse the verdict and dismiss the case. The judge, who has since been elevated to the appellate court, returned to superior court to reconsider the case.
In her ruling last summer, she found Dole was the victim of an "outrageous and profound" conspiracy to extort the company with false claims by purported plantation workers who said they had been rendered sterile by exposure to the pesticide DBCP in the 1970s.
Attorneys for Dole suggested in court Monday that the men who sued were part of a "fraud army" coached in their testimony by an American and Nicaraguan lawyer with a plan to extort billions from the giant food company in multiple lawsuits. Dole lawyers presented evidence last year that many of the men who sued the Westlake, Calif.,-based food giant, never worked on plantations and were not sterile.
Under cross-examination by Dole lawyer Scott Edelman, Musslewhite acknowledged working with Juan J. Dominguez, a Los Angeles lawyer who was referred to state authorities for investigation by the judge after witnesses said he engineered the fraud with a Nicaraguan lawyer.
Musslewhite denied having laboratory results fixed for his cases, but said he met with a laboratory doctor in Nicaragua who admitted "he had improperly doctored reports for other lawyers, but not for us."
Asked by the judge to specify which lawyers received the doctored reports, he said "one or two others" that he knew, but that he didn't remember which ones. He later said he learned at some point that the Nicaraguan doctor "engaged in some impropriety with regard to J.J. Dominguez' clients, and I went down to Nicaragua, spoke to him and fired him."
He also said he believed that the doctor "committed fraud regarding Dominguez' clients."
While Musslewhite minimized his connection to Dominguez, a Dole lawyer presented a chart of passport stamps showing that the two men made trips to Nicaragua around the same time over three years. Musslewhite acknowledged that he made 15 trips to the country but said he couldn't remember what he did on each of the visits.
He was adamant in saying that he did not attend a meeting during which witnesses claimed Toruno instructed lawyers on how to fake sperm tests in order to win cases.
"I have never conspired with Judge Socorro Toruno," Musslewhite said. "...I was not there and I don't believe such a meeting occurred."
Musslewhite then characterized the Nicaraguan judge as "a person trying to do the right thing, and she's a person of integrity."
Asked whether he had concerns about Dominguez representing 10,000 claimants against Dole, Musslewhite said, "I do. What concerned me was I was trying to get everyone to sit down and settle with Dole."
The hearing recessed until an unspecified date to be set by Chaney.
Outside court, the appellate attorney, Condi, said he believed the six plaintiffs who prevailed in the Tellez case were telling the truth and that he will prove "Juan Dominguez was framed." Condi declined to give details but said it would come up in court.
Dominguez is a personal injury lawyer whose face has appeared on bus advertisements and billboards in Los Angeles. He has not attended the court hearings.