Coca-Cola and Pepsi are usually bitter enemies, but when PepsiCo Inc. got a letter offering to sell Coke trade secrets, it went straight to its corporate rival.
Six weeks later, three people face federal charges of stealing confidential information, including a sample of a new drink, from The Coca-Cola Co. and trying to sell it to PepsiCo Inc.
"Competition can sometimes be fierce, but also must be fair and legal," Pepsi spokesman Dave DeCecco said. "We're pleased the authorities and the FBI have identified the people responsible for this."
The suspects arrested Wednesday - the day a $1.5 million (euro1.17 million) transaction was to occur - include a Coke executive's administrative assistant, Joya Williams, who is accused of rifling through corporate files and stuffing documents and a new Coca-Cola product into a personal bag.
Williams, 41, of Norcross, Georgia, and 30-year-old Ibrahim Dimson of New York and 43-year-old Edmund Duhaney of Decatur, Georgia, were charged with wire fraud and unlawfully stealing and selling Coke trade secrets, federal prosecutors said.
They were expected to appear before a federal magistrate judge on Thursday in Atlanta, where Coca-Cola is based.
Coke thanked Pepsi for its assistance.
Chief executive Neville Isdell said in a memo to employees Wednesday that the company is cooperating with federal authorities.
"Sadly, today's arrests include an individual within our company," Isdell wrote. "While this breach of trust is difficult for all of us to accept, it underscores the responsibility we each have to be vigilant in protecting our trade secrets. Information is the lifeblood of the company."
He said Coke will review its information protection policies, procedures and practices to make sure it safeguards intellectual property. Coke spokesman Ben Deutsch said the formula for trademark Coca-Cola was not stolen in the theft.
According to prosecutors, on May 19, Purchase, New York-based PepsiCo provided Coke with a copy of a letter mailed to PepsiCo in an official Coca-Cola business envelope. The letter, postmarked from the Bronx in New York, was from an individual identifying himself as "Dirk," who claimed to be employed at a high level with Coca-Cola and offered "very detailed and confidential information." "Dirk" was later identified as Dimson, the FBI says.
Coca-Cola immediately contacted the FBI and an undercover FBI investigation began.
Prosecutors say Williams was the source of the information Dimson offered to provided Pepsi. They say that "Dirk" provided an FBI undercover agent 14 pages of Coca-Cola documents marked classified and confidential. The company confirmed that the documents were valid and highly confidential and were considered trade secrets. Williams works for a senior Coke manager, though the company would not identify which one. The company also would not say if Williams has been fired.
Prosecutors say "Dirk" requested $10,000 (euro7,816) for the documents.
Later "Dirk" produced other documents that Coca-Cola confirmed were valid trade secrets of Coca-Cola and highly confidential. He also agreed to be paid $75,000 (euro58,621) for the purchase of a highly confidential product sample from a new Coca Cola project, prosecutors said.
Then on June 27, an undercover FBI agent offered to buy other trade secret items for $1.5 million (euro1.17 million) from "Dirk." The same day a bank account was opened under the names of Duhaney and Dimson, and the address used on the account was that of Duhaney's residence, prosecutors said.
Video surveillance showed Williams at her desk at Coke headquarters going through multiple files looking for documents and stuffing them into bags. She also was observed holding a liquid container with a white label, which resembled the description of a new Coca-Cola product sample, before placing it into her personal bag, prosecutors say, adding that Coca-Cola later verified the sample was genuine and is a product the company is developing.