Special prosecutor winds up investigation of Chiquita case

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The investigation into the theft of voice-mail messages at Chiquita Brands International Inc. is over.

After seven months and more than $400,000 in expenses, special prosecutor Perry Ancona and his team of attorneys will formally conclude the grand jury investigation on Thursday.

The team's work has re sulted in felony charges against a former Chiquita legal counsel and a former Cincinnati Enquirerreporter, both of whom are accused of illegal ly accessing Chiquita's voice-mail system.

“The underlying investigation is now completed,” Mr. Ancona said Monday. “It was a lengthy investigation, and I put forth my best effort.”

Mr. Ancona said he will turn over the findings of his investigation to a new special prosecutor, who will handle the upcoming trial of former Chiquita legal counsel George Ventura.

The new prosecutor, Daniel Breyer, was appointed Monday by Common Pleas Judge Norbert Nadel.

Mr. Ventura's attorney said the conclusion of the investigation means his client was apparently targeted for prosecution while other potential defendants avoided charges.

“Somebody was encircled and singled out to be a scapegoat,” said Marc Mezibov, Mr. Ventura's lawyer. “He was the one who was selected.”

The grand jury investigation began in May after the Enquirerwas accused of using stolen voice-mail messages in articles it published about Chiquita. The lead reporter, Michael Gallagher, was fired by the paper and has since pleaded guilty to two felony charges.

Mr. Ventura, who has pleaded not guilty to 10 felony charges, was later accused of providing the codes that allowed Mr. Gallagher to access the voice-mail system.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph Deters asked for a special prosecutor to investigate those cases because he had received campaign contributions from Chiquita Chairman Carl Lindner and wanted to avoid a possible conflict of interest.

Although Mr. Ancona oversaw the investigation, Mr. Deters said it makes legal and economic sense to bring in another attorney for the trial phase of the case.

He said Mr. Breyer, an assistant prosecutor in Clermont County, is expected to handle all future court proceedings.

Clermont County Prosecutor Don White said Mr. Breyer was appointed to avoid the continued expense of a private attorney. Unlike Mr. Ancona, a lawyer in private practice, Mr. Breyer will work at no additional cost to taxpayers.

“Perry Ancona did a very good job,” Mr. White said. “His leaving had nothing to do with the quality of his work, just the cost of it.”

Court records show that Mr. Ancona and his team of three assistant prosecutors and two investigators spent about $400,000 in fees and expenses. Mr. Deters said that total is reasonable for such a complex investigation.

“I think it's in line for the amount of time they spent,” Mr. Deters said. “Considering what he's gone through, I think (Mr. Ancona) has done a remarkable job. It's very difficult for someone to walk in and prosecute when that's not your usual line of work.”

He said the appointment of Mr. Breyer for the trial phase is not unusual because the two counties routinely provide special prosecutors to one another when conflicts arise.

But Mr. Mezibov said the appointment of both Mr. Ancona and Mr. Breyer raises questions about the “regularity and legality” of the investigation. Last month, he asked Judge Nadel to release all documents related to the appointments.

“We still have no response to our motion to unseal those documents,” Mr. Mezibov said. “We still have concerns about the legality of this.”

Mr. Deters, however, has said there was nothing unusual or improper about the appointments. He also said he did not think Mr. Breyer would have a conflict of interest because his brother, William, works in the Hamilton County prosecutor's office.

“The potential appearance of impropriety does not exist with Bill Breyer,” Mr. Deters said. “It exists with me.”

Mr. Ventura's case has been assigned to Judge Ann Marie Tracey. The trial is set to begin in April.

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