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Coke says speculation on CEO search, Colombia allegations 'ill-informed'

The Associated Press - ATLANTA

Speculation about the search for a new leader for The Coca-Cola Co. and allegations that the beverage giant is contributing to atrocities in Colombia are ill-informed, retiring chairman and chief executive Doug Daft said Wednesday.

Daft made the comments at the Atlanta-based company's annual meeting in Wilmington, Del. At the same time, he and director Donald Keough refused to give further details on the search to replace Daft, who leaves the company at the end of this year.

"There's kind of a media frenzy about this," Keough said. "It kind of goes with the territory. But the fact is, this board that you have elected has a simple responsibility, to bring to the fore a chairman and a CEO. To say anymore than that would be totally inappropriate."

Keough, who is on the search committee, would say only that Coke has interviewed several candidates and is in the middle of the process. A source close to the search has told The Associated Press that the search has been narrowed to about a half-dozen serious candidates.

Daft said the media attention surrounding his succession has led to "ill-informed speculation outside the company."

"Coke has been in the spotlight even more than we usually are over the past few weeks fueled by a lot of speculation and very little fact," Daft said.

Later at the meeting, all 16 board members were re-elected for another one-year term. Influential billionaire investor Warren Buffett faced the strongest opposition from some large shareholders who were concerned about his independence given his outside business ties to Coke.

Even so, he received more than 84 percent of the vote in a preliminary tally. All six shareholder proposals, several of which tried to scale back executive compensation, were rejected.

Meanwhile, outside the hotel where the meeting was being held, there were about a dozen people protesting the actions at Coca-Cola bottling plants in Colombia and India.

There was also a demonstration by Teamsters Local Union No. 830 in Philadelphia. The local represents about 500 Coca-Cola workers who went on strike Monday morning.

The international protesters were holding signs and banners reading "Killer Cola, Toxic Cola, Racist Cola" and "Coca-Cola-Stop."

The protesters are angry about the killings of union organizers in Columbia.

Jana Silverman, 28, a graduate student at Columbia University who is studying human rights, was the co-organizer of the protest.

She said nine union organizers had been killed in the past decade in Columbia, usually in connection with negotiations at bottling plants in the country.

"There's also been a pattern of kidnappings and death threats," she said.

While most of the plants are independently owned, protesters believe Cola-Cola fails to protect their workers.

"The information from these plants is sent to Atlanta on a daily basis. If they are keeping track of quality control, how can they not know that these massive violations of human rights are going on?" she said.

Another protester is Amit Srivastava, with the group, Global Resistance. He was protesting activities of Coca-Cola bottling plants in India.

He said Coca-Cola has allowed the sale of products contaminated with pesticides and that ground water in communities where bottling plants are located has been depleted and contaminated with discharge from plants.

"The alarming thing about this is that it is not a singular incident. It's a pattern," he said.

He blames Coca-Cola bottling plants for the depletion of ground water supplies at four communities and pollution problems in two communities.

He also said until recently the bottling plants were supplying farmers in India with solid waste from the plants for use as fertilizer and that the waste was contaminated with cadmium and lead.

Joe Brock, a Teamsters union executive, said workers went on strike at 12:01 Monday after a couple of months of fruitless negotiations with the owner of the Philadelphia bottling plant.

He said the workers were asked to accept reduced benefits and increased health insurance copays in exchange for meager wage increases.

Daft sought to deflect the criticism during the meeting, even as an angry shareholder representative, Raymond Rogers, 60, of New York City, went on a tirade about the Colombia allegations. Rogers, who spoke on behalf of another shareholder, told the meeting the Coke system is "ripe with immorality." He was later escorted out of the meeting room.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson told shareholders the forcible removal of Rogers was wrong. Jackson also said he was upset over the criticism that apparently was leaked to some media about general counsel Deval Patrick's performance earlier this month when Patrick announced his resignation.

Jackson also asked the company to say whether there are any black candidates for the CEO position. There was no immediate response from the company.

Daft, for his part, said the criticism of Coke is unwarranted, especially when it comes to the Colombia situation.

"Some in organized labor have been working overtime in college campuses to keep allegations in Colombia alive by misrepresentation and twisting of the facts," Daft said. "The charges linking our company to atrocities in Colombia are false and outrageous."

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