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Claxton Poultry head acquitted in federal trial
Jury finds Mikell Fries, others not guilty of price-fixing
Mikell Fries
Mikell Fries

Mikell Fries, president of Claxton Poultry; Scott Brady, a Claxton vice president; and three former executives with poultry company Pilgrim's Pride were found not guilty Thursday of fixing prices in the poultry sector.

It was the third trial for all five executives after two earlier trials resulted in hung juries. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) accused the men of helping organize a scheme among the nation's largest poultry producers to rig bids for chicken sold to restaurant chains and grocery stores, including Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The jury in Denver Federal Court said there was no price-fixing by Fries, Brady, or retired Pilgrim's Pride CEO Bill Lovette, his successor Jayson Penn, and Pilgrim's sales executive Roger Austin.

After the initial indictment in June 2020, Claxton Poultry in a statement called the charges “baseless” and “without merit.” 

According to a report Friday on the Law360 website, Brady's attorney, Bryan Lavine, wrote in an email that “the team was very appreciative" and had "maintained from the beginning that Scott is innocent.”

“The jury verdict allows Scott to go forward with his life," he said.

Michael Tubach, an attorney for Penn, was quoted after the verdict in Bloomberg News as saying, “This case should never have been brought.”

According to a report Friday in the FoodDrive newsletter, the case was part of a years-long investigation by the Justice Department of alleged price-fixing among poultry companies, which began in 2016, targeting 14 executives.  It went to trial twice before, both times resulting in mistrials due to deadlocked juries.

When the DOJ announced it would pursue a third trial, U.S. District Judge Philip Brimmer summoned Jonathan Kanter, the head of DOJ’s Antitrust Division, to Denver in April to explain why, after two hung juries, the government believed it could still win convictions.

“We know that the evidence couldn’t persuade 12 people,” a skeptical Brimmer told Kanter at the time. “We’ve seen it happen twice.”

Lawyers for the Pilgrim’s Pride and Claxton executives filed a motion to dismiss the charges, calling them “unconstitutional.”

"Although we are disappointed in the verdict, we will continue to vigorously enforce the antitrust laws, especially when it comes to price-fixing schemes that affect core staples," the DOJ said in a statement Thursday. "We will not be deterred from continuing to vigilantly pursue cases to protect the American people and our markets."