When Emails Come Home to Roost

Oct. 8, 2020

Some forms of communication aren't suitable for criminal conspiracies.

Once I asked a criminal prosecutor who specialized in white-collar crimes which technologies benefit her the most professionally. Without a moment’s hesitation she said, “Email and texting. They make my job so much easier.”

She wasn’t talking about messages between her and her colleagues.

That conversation came to mind when I read the details on the latest round of federal indictments in the poultry price-fixing case. The recently retired CEO of Pilgrim’s Pride joined the recently fired one in the dock, along with execs of Koch Foods and others. They’re basically accused of consulting with each other just before giving trade customers quotes about pricing and other matters.

What caught my eye was how the alleged conspirators used email. For example, according to the indictment, when a customer asked Koch Foods for a longer term on a line of credit, a Koch employee emailed Bill Lovette, then-CEO of Pilgrim’s Pride, to ask if his company had received a similar request. The indictment says that Lovette emailed back: “Yes, we told them NO!” and the Koch guy replied, “OK. Then I am 100 percent on board. If that changes can you please tell me?”

This is another case of the internet giveth, and the internet taketh away. Price-fixing would seem to be almost impossibly easy in the information age, with all kinds of data about pricing, at every stage of the supply chain, available with a few keystrokes. But anyone who wants to fix prices should at least have the smarts not to do so in writing, especially not in digital media, which is eternal.

It seems like someone didn’t watch, or take to heart, the episode of “The Wire” where a drug kingpin angrily snatches a notepad out of a confederate’s hand, snarling, “Is you takin’ notes on a criminal [obscenity] conspiracy? What the [obscenity] are you thinkin’, man?”