DOJ Takes Final Bite of Colorado Chicken Fixing Case

In October, a federal judge in Colorado agreed to throw out the last feather in the U.S. Department of Justice’s criminal case against executives accused of conspiring to fix the price of broiler chickens in the U.S.

The voluntary dismissal from the DOJ appears to be the last chapter in an unusual and lengthy antitrust case which took place in Colorado’s federal court over several years. 

On Oct. 17, Judge Daniel Domenico of U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado allowed the DOJ to drop charges against two former poultry industry executives accused of working with others to fix the price of broiler chickens in the U.S. Jason McGuire, former executive vice president of Greeley-based poultry producer Pilgrim’s Pride Corp, and Timothy Stiller, the former general manager, were indicted by a federal grand jury in July 2021 on counts of conspiracy to restrain competition in the U.S. broiler chicken market between 2012 and 2019. Stiller and McGuire were charged alongside two other executives whose cases were dropped in August. 

The indictments were based on a slew of communications that prosecutors argued showed a number of poultry industry executives were in cahoots to stifle competitive pricing of the poultry market.  

The DOJ used much of the same evidence to charge 10 other executives on similar criminal charges which led to two mistrials, dropped charges for five defendants and an acquittal earlier this year. Charges for conspiracy to restrict trade were also dropped in September against Norman Fries, Inc., which owned Claxton Poultry Farms. 

The only apparent win in the DOJ’s book came from a case brought against Pilgrim’s Pride, a unit of Brazilian food giant JBS SA, in October 2020 and led to the company pleading guilty to conspiracy to fix prices and rig chicken meat prices between 2012 and 2019. 

The latest development in the chicken fixing trials came after Domenico ruled 294 exhibits from the DOJ were inadmissible to trial. The exhibits included text messages and emails between the alleged co-conspirators and needed to pass requirements set out by the 5th Circuit’s 1979 ruling in United States v. James. After holding a James hearing, Domenico wrote that while the government’s evidence could lead a jury to believe there was conspiracy, it didn’t clearly establish a conspiracy existed. 

“The law is clear that sharing pricing information can be perfectly innocent if done independently and not pursuant to concerted action,” wrote Domenico in an Oct. 14 order denying the admission of the communications. “And here, the facts are at least as consistent with innocent, independent price-sharing behavior as they are with conspiratorial price fixing and bid rigging.”

Defense attorney Kristen Frost of Denver firm Ridley, McGreevy & Winocur, P.C. represented Stiller during the case and said she’s glad charges against her client were dropped. 

“We are grateful that the charges were dropped shortly before trial and we’re happy for our client and his family that they can move on with their lives,” said Frost. 

In total, the DOJ’s antitrust chicken cases — Penn, McGuire, Norman Fries and Pilgrim’s Pride — have included criminal charges against 14 individuals and two companies. The cases mostly fell flat with two mistrials, acquittals for five defendants and charges dropped against nine individuals and one company. 

Frost said she hopes the charges dropped against Stiller and McGuire will be the last chapter in the DOJ’s chicken-fixing proceedings. 

“I would hope that this is the end of the road for litigation related to this case because a federal judge has now found that the bulk of their evidence wasn’t admissible as evidence of a conspiracy even under the lowest standard of a preponderance of the evidence,” said Frost. Stiller and McGuire were the last two defendants to have their charges dropped and Frost noted the DOJ dropped the case only after the evidentiary ruling. 

“The impact of the order was that it eviscerated the government’s case. The case was largely based on hundreds of text messages and emails that were excluded per the order,” said Frost. 

Domenico’s evidentiary order appeared skeptical of the DOJ’s case with the federal judge writing the communications gave “only the faintest whiffs of an agreement to fix prices.” Notably, the James evidentiary hearing was held the same day the DOJ dropped its case against Norman Fries. 

Frost said a unique part of working on the case was the extensive collaboration between attorneys for both her client’s co-defendants as well as attorneys in the Penn and Norman Fries trials. 

McGuire was represented by attorneys Jarrett Arp and Tatiana Martins at national firm DavisPolk. 

“This was truly a team effort and It was an honor and pleasure to work with all of the amazing lawyers in the McGuire case, in the Penn case and in the Norman Fries case,” said Frost. “And I thank all of those lawyers for their continued help and support.”

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