Six current and former chicken industry executives, including one with ties to Wilkes County, have been indicted in an ongoing federal investigation of price-fixing and bid-rigging.
The six include William Wade “Bill” Lovette Jr., who was president and CEO of Greeley, Colo.-based Pilgrim’s Pride when he retired in March 2019. He is the son of the late William Wade “Billy Wade” Lovette Sr., a Wilkes native who managed Holly Farms chicken processing plants in Monroe and Texas.
The other five are:
• Timothy R. Mulrenin, a sales director at Perdue Farms but a sales executive at Tyson Foods Inc. most of the time of the accusations;
• William V. Kantola, vice president of food service at Koch Foods Inc.;
• Jimmie Lee Little, a sales director at Pilgrim’s Pride;
• Gary B. Roberts, vice president of sales and marketing at Troutman-based Case Farms and former vice president, national accounts at Tyson Foods.;
• Rickie Patterson Blake, a director and manager at Springdale, Ark.-based George’s Inc.
The indictment says the six engaged in a “conspiracy to suppress and eliminate competition by rigging bids and fixing prices” of broiler chicken products from at least 2012 to at least early 2019. They’re all charged with conspiracy.
Prosecutors announced indictments of four senior industry executives on similar charges in June. They included Jayson Penn, then chief executive of Pilgrim’s Pride. Penn and the others charged in June pleaded not guilty.
“The division will not tolerate collusion that inflates prices American shoppers and diners pay for food,” said Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim of the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ). “Executives who choose collusion over competition will be held to account for schemes that cheat consumers and corrupt our competitive markets.”
Walmart Inc., Kroger Co. and other major supermarket chains in recent years sued Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, and other companies, alleging they coordinated production and price reporting to increase broiler chicken prices.
The poultry companies contest the charges and say chicken prices are driven by grain prices, export sales and other market forces.
Tyson Foods said it was served with a grand jury subpoena from the DOJ in April 2019 concerning a criminal antitrust investigation of the broiler chicken industry. The company said it immediately self-reported information to the DOJ.
Tyson said it has fully cooperated with the DOJ as part of its application for leniency under a DOJ corporate leniency program.
“A formal grant of leniency will mean that neither the company nor any of its employees will face criminal fines, jail time or prosecution. Our swift and decisive actions demonstrate our steadfast commitment to treating suppliers, customers and partners with integrity and to fostering a free and fair competitive environment that not only benefits consumers but makes Tyson Foods better,” the company stated.