Coke Loses Top Black Executive and General Counsel

After a challenging three years at The Coca-Cola Co., where he directed the soft drink giant’s worldwide legal affairs, Deval Patrick is stepping down. As executive vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary, the Harvard College grad was the highest-ranking African American executive at Coke. Patrick, who made BLACK ENTERPRISE’s list of “America’s Top Black Lawyers,”(November 2003) is one of 22 blacks leading Fortune 500 legal departments, according to the Minority Corporate Counsel Association. His is one of several executive departures at Coke; Chairman and CEO Doug Daft is expected to retire this year.

A Chicago native, Patrick is considered an expert in helping companies through the fallout and recovery from racial discrimination lawsuits. The 47-year-old executive arrived at Coke shortly after the firm settled a $193 million racial discrimination suit. Under similar circumstances, Patrick, a former Clinton appointee to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, served a two-year stint at Texaco as vice president, general counsel, and executive council member. He was brought onboard to shepherd Texaco through a $176.1 million discrimination suit.

Patrick is leaving at a time when Coke faces two ongoing federal investigations and several lawsuits, including a whistle-blower case that raised accounting questions. Worker safety issues in Colombia and price inflation charges in Japan also sparked controversy. Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose Rainbow/PUSH Coalition receives financial backing from Coke, has alleged that Patrick was pushed out.

However, Patrick says he “resigned voluntarily” and hasn’t asked for any severance. He is leaving for personal and professional reasons, which include spending time with his wife, who has a practice in Boston. And then there’s the considerable amount of office politics associated with the beverage behemoth. As an example, Patrick cites the manner in which his resignation was handled: His memo was leaked and he “spent three days dealing with something that had nothing to do with making the company better or improving shareholder value.” Despite news reports, Patrick contends that board members were never unhappy with his work.

According to the Corporate Counsel Website, Patrick’s five-year employment contract provided for a $475,000 base salary, plus annual bonuses and long-term incentives. He received stock options worth $19.4 million in 2001 and $3.5 million in 2002, in addition to a $1.25 million bonus in 2002.

Coke says Patrick’s departure won’t affect the company’s commitment to diversity. There are currently 20 African Americans employed by Coke at the level of vice president or above, and one African American board member. And Coca-Cola spokesperson Racquel White says the company has a new head of diversity.

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