Alltech, the Nicholasville-based feed supplement company, was suspended for a year from a major poultry industry trade show after company founder T. Pearse Lyons was accused of searching through a competitor's booth after hours.
The competitor, Diamond V of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, filed a formal complaint with the Midwest Poultry Federation at its annual convention in Minneapolis in March 2009.
"That incident did occur and we did consider it a serious incident," said Mike Mitchell, director of the company's North American Poultry division.
In response to a Herald-Leader inquiry about the 2009 incident, Alltech said it was "a misunderstanding" that the company resolved by stepping aside from the trade show for a year.
But that isn't how the poultry group or Diamond V view the incident.
"Based on the information we had, it was pretty clear-cut to us. I don't see how it was a misunderstanding," said Steve Olson, executive director of the Midwest Poultry Federation. "We viewed it as serious and we want to protect the integrity of the show and all the other exhibitors."
Video footage from a security camera and an independent witness corroborated Diamond V employees' account that Lyons was involved in the incident, Olson said.
"We gave them (Alltech) an opportunity to respond. They declined to dispute that," he said.
In a 2009 email to all exhibitors, the federation said: "One exhibitor was observed, shortly after show hours, photographing a competitor's booth and opening closed cabinets to view promotional materials."
Alltech spokesman Billy Frey said the company's lawyers also reviewed the video and "saw no wrongdoing."
He said Alltech's attorneys did not see Lyons clearly on tape. The lawyers "said there was no implicit evidence," said Frey, who has not seen the footage.
Olson disputes that the security camera footage, viewed by convention officials, cleared Lyons.
"It was part of what we based our decision on. That and a corroborating witness," he said. "The CCTV (closed-circuit television) didn't show everything, but it showed enough."
The federation's board voted unanimously to ban Alltech from the trade show for a year, saying in an email to other exhibitors, "At the core of our relationship is our integrity and we do not take this lightly, nor for granted."
Frey questioned why the 2009 incident is only now coming to light. He noted that Alltech recently accused Diamond V of false advertising and sent them a cease-and-desist letter.
"I'm wondering if they're retaliating against us," Frey said. "This is a story that seems kind of out-of-the-blue, that a story like this would come up two years later, after it's been completely resolved and we've moved on and we've exhibited at the show, with no incidences there."
Mitchell said he was unaware of Diamond V receiving any recent cease-and-desist letters from Alltech.
The trade show incident surfaces publicly as the international nutritional supplements company faces a sexual harassment lawsuit filed last month by the company's former U.S. controller. Amanda Jo Wester alleged in her suit against Alltech that she suffered three years of salacious emails from her former boss, Eric Lanz, and that top officials ignored her complaints, then retaliated by removing job duties.
Wester also cited behavior by Lyons, such as slapping her and another female employee on the bottom, that she said set a permissive tone at the company.
Alltech responded to Wester's allegations with a statement that said the company's policies prohibit harassment and that it provides a "productive and comfortable work environment."
Alltech in recent years has aggressively pursued sales growth around the world, with Lyons as the public face of the company. Most notably, the company spent more than $30 million to sponsor and support the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
In a written statement about the 2009 trade show incident, Alltech spokeswoman Susanna Elliott said complaints among competitors at trade shows are "very common."
"The misunderstanding involved competitor complaints alleging that Alltech broke an exhibitor rule," Elliott said. "Alltech exhibits at hundreds of trade shows around the world each year, and complaints at trade shows are very common between competitors. We were invited by organizers to respond to the allegations and did so privately. We asked for a review including CCTV footage, which indicated no wrongdoing. We chose, however, not to prolong the issue."
Olson said this week he can't speak for other shows Alltech attends but that in the 11 years he's been with the Midwest Poultry Federation this is the only time an incident like this has occurred.
"At our show, we don't have those kinds of complaints between competitors," he said.