Coke executive resigns amid turmoil

Company has been target of contentious litigation in past few years


In a development that analysts said reflected continuing political turmoil and infighting at the Coca-Cola Co., Deval L. Patrick, the general counsel for three years, has resigned, the company said.

Patrick will be succeeded on an interim basis by Geoff Kelly, who has been at Coke for 34 years. Previously, Kelly was senior vice president and chief deputy counsel.

The developments were first reported yesterday in The Wall Street Journal.

Patrick, 47, joined Coke early in 2001 from Texaco, where he also was general counsel.

Patrick was Coke's highest-ranking black executive. He arrived soon after Coke agreed to settle a class action racial discrimination lawsuit filed by black employees. But Patrick has seen his share of contentious litigation filed against Coca-Cola.

In part, analysts said, displeasure from higher-ups about how those matters were handled played a role in his resignation. Patrick's decision to leave also probably mirrors the frustration he felt in dealing with Coke's executives and directors over the lawsuits, the analysts said.

"Coke has had a complicated and not entirely happy time on the legal front over the past few years," said John D. Sicher, publisher of Beverage Digest.

Douglas N. Daft, Coke's chairman and chief executive, informed employees that Patrick was leaving in a memorandum on Sunday. "He ably defended the company's interests on many fronts," Daft said in the memo. "We are grateful for his wisdom and guidance."

Coke has been under criticism - and regulatory scrutiny - since last spring for the way it handled lawsuits filed by Matthew Whitley, a former employee who claimed he was improperly fired. Whitley made a series of accusations about wrongdoing at Coke, primarily in its fountain division, and he and his lawyer said they would drop the lawsuit if Coke agreed to settle the case for more than $44 million.

Coke declined, but as the case progressed, the company was forced to disclose that a former executive had approved a fraudulent marketing test involving a product sold in its Burger King restaurants.

Coca-Cola settled Whitley's lawsuits last fall by agreeing to pay him $540,000.

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