A federal judge ignored a former Coca-Cola secretary’s tearful plea for mercy Wednesday and sentenced her to eight years in prison for conspiring to steal trade secrets from the world’s largest beverage maker.
U.S. District Judge J. Owen Forrester told Joya Williams, 42, that he was giving her a longer sentence than recommended by federal prosecutors and sentencing guidelines because, “This is the kind of offense that cannot be tolerated in our society.”
Williams had faced up to 10 years in prison on the single conspiracy charge in a failed scheme to sell Coke’s trade secrets to rival Pepsi for at least $1.5 million.
But sentencing guidelines, which federal judges are not bound by, called for a sentence of 63 months to 78 months. Williams was convicted Feb. 2 following a jury trial in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, where The Coca-Cola Co. is based.
“I can’t think of another case in 25 years that there’s been so much obstruction of justice,” the judge said.
As for the sentencing guidelines, Forrester said, “The guidelines as they are written don’t begin to approach the seriousness of this case.”
A co-defendant, Ibrahim Dimson, was sentenced to five years in prison. Both also were ordered to pay $40,000 restitution, and they will be on supervised release for three years after being released from prison.
Forrester ignored a tearful apology by Williams, which marked the first time she acknowledged what she did. Williams had testified during the trial that she did not commit a crime.
“Your honor, I have expanded my consciousness through this devastating experience,” Williams said before she was sentenced. “This has been a very defining moment in my life. I have become infamous when I never wanted to become famous.”
She added, “I am sorry to Coke and I’m sorry to my boss and to you and to my family as well.”
The government said Williams stole confidential documents and samples of products that hadn’t been launched by Coca-Cola and gave them to Dimson and a third defendant, Edmund Duhaney, as part of a conspiracy to sell the items to Pepsi. Duhaney, like Dimson, pleaded guilty to conspiracy. Prior to the Coke case, Duhaney and Dimson had been incarcerated at the same federal prison in Alabama at the same time.
Duhaney, who had been friends with Williams for years, will be sentenced for the Coke conspiracy later. A date was not immediately set because Duhaney’s lawyer, Don Samuel, is in the midst of another trial. Samuel filed a request Wednesday to allow Duhaney to be released from custody Thursday for several days so he can be at the hospital with his 15-year-old daughter, who is having surgery. Forrester granted the request.
The conspiracy was foiled after Pepsi warned Coca-Cola that it had received a letter in May 2006 offering Coca-Cola trade secrets to the “highest bidder.” The FBI launched an undercover investigation and identified the letter writer as Dimson.
Williams was fired as a secretary to Coca-Cola’s global brand director at the company’s headquarters after the allegations came to light.
Williams’ apology Wednesday lasted for several minutes and she asked the judge to show mercy, though Forrester had told her before she spoke that he planned to depart from the sentencing guidelines.
“Punishment is the memories and the moments that I’m going to miss,” she said. “Punishment is never having a family of my own.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Byung J. Pak told the judge that Williams didn’t deserve leniency.
“Choices have consequences and she made those choices,” Pak said. “She chose to go to trial and she lied on the stand.”
At the hearing, prosecutors disclosed that Williams has two prior convictions, one involving making false statements related to unemployment insurance.
Williams’ lawyers had repeatedly asserted in court and out of court that Williams had no criminal past, and the government until Wednesday did not challenge that assertion.
A fire destroyed Williams’ apartment in suburban Norcross nearly 90 minutes after she was convicted in February.
Local fire officials have said the fire was caused accidentally by an unattended candle in Williams’ apartment that ignited some curtains.
One of the prosecutors in the Coca-Cola case said in court papers a few days after the fire that Williams made inconsistent statements to investigators regarding her location and actions during the fire, and he asserted that the fire was still being investigated by federal authorities.
Forrester denied a defense request Wednesday to remove or clarify the reference to the fire in the pre-sentence report drafted by probation officials. He said Williams was “high as a kite” on cough syrup at the time of the fire and “gave three different explanations for the fire.”