Concerns over Coca-Cola’s (KO) involvement with a Colorado-based anti-obesity research group just took a new turn.
The soft drink company reportedly paid $550,000 directly to James Hill, president of Global Energy Balance Network, a presently defunct organization dedicated to advancing anti-obesity efforts. Fortune previously reported that the group disbanded following revelations that Coca-Cola donated $1 million in startup funding to the organization.
Hill, a nutrition expert, teaches at the University of Colorado and directs the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, the university’s medical campus. Coca-Cola provided him with the $550,000 before GEBN had been established, the Denver Post reports. The money paid for “honoraria, travel, education activities, and research on weight management,” a spokesperson from Coca-Cola told the Post.
Colorado Ethics Watch director Luis Toro told the Post that Coca-Cola funding Hill’s travel presents a big “red flag,” and it could go against a state law that restricts corporate funding to public employees. In addition to funding, emails originally obtained by the Associated Press show Hill asking the beverage giant if it could offer his son a job.
Coca-Cola also donated $1 million to CU Anschutz, which the university returned in the wake of the GEBN controversy. Richard Traystman, vice chancellor for research at the medical campus, agrees that industry does play an important role in the organization’s efforts, but “The only role? Not close.”
“It is not fair that Coca-Cola is [singled] out as the #1 villain in the obesity world,” Hill wrote in a 2014 email to Coca-Cola. “I want to help your company avoid the image of being a problem in peoples’ lives.” In the same email, Hill solicited the company for a donation. “I hope I am not being too forward but I need your help — and a lot of it,” he wrote. “No other groups out there are thinking the way we are thinking and we can succeed.”
A spokesperson for Coca-Cola told Fortune that the company is “evaluating [its] approach to obesity.” “We are listening and learning from leading experts in the public health community,” the spokesperson said, adding that Coca-Cola recognizes it needs to be “even more transparent.”