Coca-Cola Trade Secrets Trial Starts This Week
Prosecutors say a former Coca-Cola secretary took confidential documents from the beverage giant and samples of products that hadn't been launched with the aim of selling them to rival Pepsi. Her lawyer says she was duped by two ex-cons and didn't commit a crime.
A jury will be asked to determine who is telling the truth. The process of selecting that jury starts Tuesday in Joya Williams' trial.
Williams, who was fired as an administrative assistant to Coca-Cola's
global brand director after the alleged scheme came to light last summer, faces up to ten years in prison if convicted of conspiracy.
Williams, Edmund Duhaney and Ibrahim Dimson were indicted on the single federal charge, accused of stealing new product samples and confidential documents from Atlanta-based Coca-Cola and trying to sell them to Purchase, New York-based PepsiCo
The alleged plans were foiled after Pepsi warned Coca-Cola in May and an undercover FBI investigation was launched.
Dimson and Duhaney have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing. Duhaney is expected to testify against Williams, though it is unclear if Dimson will. The two men served prison terms at the same time at a federal penitentiary in Montgomery, Alabama. Duhaney served nearly five years of a seven-year sentence on a cocaine charge before being released in 2005; Dimson served less than one year of a two-year sentence on a bank fraud charge before his release
Williams' lawyer, Janice Singer, said she plans to make the two men's credibility a key issue in her client's defense. Williams doesn't have a criminal record, another attorney who previously represented her has said.
"The case is about two felons who manipulated and used my client without her knowledge," Singer said. "She did not take any documents she believed to be trade secrets to share with these people or to harm Coke and benefit Pepsi, nor did she intentionally knowingly give them any documents." Singer said that Williams was allowed to take home documents from her job.
She suggested that Dimson and Duhaney stole the materials from her.
"We're not denying that she possessed them, but we are denying that she conspired with the other defendants to do anything nefarious or wrong," Singer said.
However, prosecutors say they have a strong case. That includes video surveillance showing Williams at her desk at Coke headquarters going through multiple files looking for documents and stuffing them into bags, according to court records. She also was observed holding a liquid container with a white label, which resembled the description of a new product sample, before placing it into her personal bag, prosecutors say.
The prosecution says a box containing two undisclosed product samples and other confidential company papers were found in Duhaney's home during a search on July 5, the day all three were arrested.
Coke has declined to give details about the samples, including which products they are for. The indictment only refers to a mysterious "Project N".
Duhaney's lawyer, Don Samuel, said his client played a small role in the scheme. "He pleaded guilty to being a member of a conspiracy so you can assume he will testify consistent to that plea," Samuel said.
The episode prompted Coke to re-evaluate its safeguards for protecting trade secrets, and other corporations have asked whether they should do the same. The products allegedly stolen weren't locked up in a bank vault like the recipe for Coca-Cola's flagship soda brand.
Coke's general counsel sent a memo to employees afterward urging them to come forward if they see someone doing something inappropriate.
A Coca-Cola spokeswoman, Crystal Walker, declined to comment on the trial.
Prosecutors are seeking some secrecy during the trial. They want to bar jurors from disclosing to others confidential materials they are presented, seal any exhibits containing trade secrets that are entered into evidence, and limit defense lawyer Singer's ability to introduce confidential information into evidence. Rulings by U.S. District Judge J. Owen Forrester were pending. Singer has said granting the requests would violate her client's right to a public trial.
On Tuesday, potential jurors will be given a jury questionnaire. The panel will be chosen Wednesday, and opening statements could begin that afternoon or Thursday, Singer said. The trial, including jury selection, is expected to last up to two weeks.
The questionnaire gauges whether potential jurors own Coca-Cola stock, work for the company or have already made up their mind about the facts of the case based on pretrial publicity, Singer said. "We're not striking people based on whether they drink Coke," Singer said with a laugh. "If that was the case, I'd also have to recuse myself."