US WHEAT growers, who claim they are victims of the $290 million Iraqi wheat scandal, have officiall

24 Apr, 2007 08:45 PM
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The American farmers, seeking damages said to be worth over $100m, are being represented by lawyer Michael Hausfeld who is the lead attorney in the suit.

Mr Hausfeld said the effect of AWB¹s kickbacks had caused American farmers to suffer financial loss.

³There was an anti-competitive intent to foreclose the United States and other potential major suppliers in competition with AWB¹s wheat,² he said.

³That caused a reaction in the price of wheat in the US, depressing it and causing injury to those American farmers.²

As of Friday last week, AWB said it had not been officially served with the class action but would defend the claim vigorously if and when it was lodged.

The local lawsuit against AWB is seeking compensation on behalf of shareholders who lost money on their B-class shares.

The action will allege AWB did not meet its disclosure obligations when it failed to tell the stock market it was paying trucking fees to Iraqi officials in breach of UN sanctions.

Lead applicant John Watson said he lost $10,000 from the share slump.

AWB has refused to concede any ground, saying it will also defend this claim vigorously.

The US action against AWB will also target its US subsidiary AWB (USA) Limited.

In December, the US Agriculture Department suspended and proposed debarment of AWB Limited, and its affiliates from participating in US government programs and contracts.

The US department believed there was sufficient evidence to suspect AWB engaged in bribery, kickbacks and similar behaviour resulting in payments to the Saddam Hussein regime.

A statement released by the US Wheat Associates (USW) said its industry had long been opposed to export state trading enterprises like AWB, and would continue to work to end their distorting influence on world wheat trade.

USW chairman Leonard Schock said his organisation had been monitoring the situation for more than a year.

Mr Schock said USW was the first to complain publicly about AWB¹s corrupt practices during the oil for food (OFF) program.

³From 1999 until 2003, AWB allegedly paid bribes and kickbacks to the regime of Saddam Hussein in exchange for exclusive contracts for wheat sales under the United Nations OFF program and to keep its competition ‹ American-grown wheat ‹ out of the Iraqi market,² Mr Schock said.

³As a result, American farmers were stuck with an oversupply of wheat during that period which depressed the prices at which they could sell their wheat.

³This complaint focuses on farmers who produced hard red winter (HRW) wheat during the relevant period. HRW wheat accounts for about 40pc of total US production and is grown by more than 100,000 farmers primarily in the Great Plains, including Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota and Montana.

³The lawsuit invokes the federal antitrust and civil Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) laws to force AWB and its US subsidiary to compensate American farmers for the damages they suffered.²

Mr Schock said the damage bill for American farmers could be well more than $100m.

He said the lawsuit was based largely on the findings of two independent investigations into AWB¹s conduct during the oil for food program.

One was the Cole inquiry, and the other an 18-month UN investigation in October 2005, which discovered AWB was the single largest source of kickbacks in the oil for food program.

³The findings of the UN investigation were verified and further detailed by an Australian government investigation completed in November of 2006,² he said.

³AWB knew that, by paying these bribes, it would profit at the direct expense of American farmers - its only real competition in the Iraqi market.

³Unfortunately, AWB achieved its monopoly in the Iraqi market not through fair competition, but by deceiving the UN into unwittingly funding Hussein¹s corrupt regime.

³There has been a great deal of talk on Capitol Hill, and in the wheat farming community, about the damage inflicted on US farmers by AWB¹s conduct.

³Today¹s filing is the first concrete step toward recovery.²

USW communications director Steve Mercer said his organization was not pushing the lawsuit despite issuing a media release, providing details of how US growers could join in or find out more about the class action.

³I want to be very clear, repeating what was in our statement, that USW did not initiate this lawsuit, nor are we a party to it,² Mr Mercer said.

³The suit was brought by individual producers independent of any organization representing wheat producers.²

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