By Roger Parloff
February 28, 2008

Yesterday a special master in a federal shareholders class-action suit against The Coca-Cola Company (KO) recommended that the law firm of Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman & Robbins be barred from serving as class counsel because it had purchased “stolen” company documents from a disgruntled former Coke executive.

“Class Counsel engaged in extremely troubling conduct,” wrote Special Master Hunter R. Hughes, III, “by paying for documents stolen from Coke, and then exacerbated the [situation] by refusing to accept responsibility for that conduct and by continuing, to this day, to defend that conduct through the use of arguments that appear to be pretextual.” Hughes’s ruling is here. (The pertinent pages are 49-69.)

Hunter’s recommendation was submitted to U.S. District Judge Willis B. Hunt, Jr., of Atlanta, who will wait to receive comments from the parties before deciding what action to take.

Hunter acknowledged that Coughlin Stoia’s lawyers had “vigorously and skillfully prosecuted this case for now seven years,” and said that “had they addressed this issue head-on, recognizing the impropriety of the arrangement they made . . . that might well have served to mitigate the circumstances. But they did not. Instead, they turned a blind eye to the terms of the consulting agreement pursuant to which they paid for the company documents and continue even now to make unfounded arguments which only obfuscate the issue.”

Coughlin Stoia partners (on the West Coast) were not immediately available to respond to email inquiries sent early this morning (from the East Coast), but any comment received will be inserted when it arrives.

(Coughlin Stoia, formerly known as Lerach Coughlin, is the firm founded by William Lerach in 2004, when he split away from Milberg Weiss and took that firm’s West Coast office with him. Lerach began serving a two-year federal prison term earlier this month after pleading guilty to conspiring to obstruct justice in connection with an unrelated kickback scheme at Milberg Weiss. Milberg Weiss has pleaded not guilty to the same charges, and is scheduled to go to trial in August.)

The case against Coke, filed in October 2000, alleges that the company artificially inflated its revenues through “channel-stuffing.” (A company channel-stuffs when it cajoles distributors into buying more product than they really need, to make it look to shareholders like consumer sales are brisker than they are.)

About four months after the case was filed, two former Coke executives approached the class’s law firm (then still known as Milberg Weiss) to offer help on the case, according to Hughes’s report. One of the two former execs, Greg Petro, told class counsel that he’d taken about 3,000 Coke documents with him when he had been terminated. The law firm then signed a “consulting agreement” with the two former executives, agreeing to pay them $200 an hour but, in any event, no less than $75,000, if they would provide information to the firm “including . . . documentation in any form, written or electronic, concerning Coke.” Petro then turned over 3,023 company documents, including many marked “confidential.” Some were then used in connection with an amended complaint filed in the case.

When the consulting agreement came to light more than a year ago, Coughlin Stoia lawyers backed Petro’s claim that neither he nor they had thought he was taking Coke documents without authority because, among other things, Petro had been ordered, when terminated, to “clean out his office.” Special Master Hughes found that such a command could not “rationally be construed to authorize Petro to walk off with company documents, any more than it authorized him to take the company’s desk, chairs, and computer.”

Hughes also rejected arguments that the firm was not really buying the documents, just entering into a consulting agreement, and a public-policy style argument that Petro’s conduct should be condoned because he was a whistleblower trying to expose corporate wrongdoing.

In a footnote, Hughes found that public policy arguments weighed in the other direction: “On a very practical level, for the Court to give Plaintiffs’ counsel a pass on this conduct, would simply invite terminated employees, particularly of public companies, to on a wholesale basis remove company documents following their termination in hopes they can sell them should the company be sued.”

In the silver-lining department, Special Master Hughes did find that the mere past involvement of Bill Lerach in the case, and Lerach’s subsequent admission of unrelated criminal conduct, did not warrant barring Coughlin Stoia from serving as class counsel.

Correction: Earlier version of this story had wrong the wrong month for when Milberg Weiss is set to go to trial. Correct month is August. Regret the error.

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