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Former StarKist executive pleads guilty in fed price fixing suit

A former StarKist Co., senior executive has pled guilty in federal court for his role in a conspiracy to fix the price of packaged seafood, such as canned tuna, sold in the US, according to court records and federal prosecutors.

Stephen L. Hodge — who served as StarKist Co., senior vice president of sales from May 2010 until December 2013 — was charged May 30 with one count of price fixing of packaged seafood at the federal court in San Francisco, where he appeared Wednesday before US District Court Edward M. Chen, for a change of plea hearing.

Electronic court records show that Hodge entered a guilty plea to the price fixing charge, and Chen has scheduled for Mar. 28, 2018 for a status conference hearing in which a sentencing hearing date will then be set for Hodge, who is not in custody.

According to the US Justice Department, Hodge has agreed to pay a criminal fine and cooperate with the USDOJ Antitrust Division’s ongoing investigation into the packaged seafood industry, which is conducted jointly by the Antitrust Division and FBI offices in San Francisco.

With Hodge’s plea, Acting Assistant Attorney General Andrew Finch of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division says the “Antitrust Division continues to send a strong signal that senior executives will be held accountable for their actions.”

“The division, along with our law enforcement colleagues, will continue to investigate price fixing among packaged seafood companies and the executives who worked at those companies,” he said in a national statement.

FBI San Francisco Division Special Agent in Charge John F. Bennett is quoted in the same statement that that the FBI “will not tolerate the reprehensible behavior of company executives who abuse the trust of the American public for personal gain.”

As of yesterday morning the plea agreement between Hodge and federal prosecutors was not accessible to the public through electronic court records. Therefore details of his plea are not available yet.

The USDOJ complaint, filed May 30, alleges that Hodge and his coconspirators “knowingly entered into and engaged in a combination and conspiracy to fix, raise, and maintain the prices of packaged seafood — which includes shelf stable tuna fish sold in the US.”

It’s alleged that the defendant and his coconspirators did, among other things, “engage in conversations and discussions and attended meetings with representatives of other major packaged-seafood-producing firms” to carry out the price fixing scheme. (See Samoa News edition June 6 for details)

According to the complaint, price fixing is a felony, with a maximum prison term of 10 years; a fine of $1 million, or two times the gross gain or loss, whichever is greater; and not more than 3 years of supervised release.

StarKist corporate spokesperson Michelle Faist told Samoa News earlier this month that StarKist has cooperated and is continuing to fully cooperate with the federal investigation. She also confirmed that StarKist had received in 2015 a USDOJ subpoena seeking information as part of a packaged seafood industry investigation.

Court documents —  in the separate civil cases against the nation’s major canned tuna producers including StarKist that are overseen by the San Diego federal court — show that Hodge was an executive with Del Monte Food, holding the post of field sales director for StarKist from 2008 to 2010 (this is during the time that Del Monte owned StarKist).

Hodge is the third person charged in the federal probe into the price fixing of packaged seafood in the US. The other two, Walter Scott Cameron and Kenneth Worsham, who are both executives of Bumble Bee Seafood, were charged last December. Then last month, the federal government charged Bumble Bee itself in connection with price fixing.

As of yesterday morning court records show that Cameron and Worsham already pled guilty earlier this year, with their status conference hearing on Oct. 4, which is also the same date that the court will set a sentencing date. For Bumble Bee, its next court appearance is Aug. 22.

Plea agreements for Cameron and Wosham are also not available for public viewing through electronic federal court records.