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Burger King caught in a whopper

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After years of pressure from advocacy groups, several large fast-food companies recently agreed to pay higher wages to Florida’s tomato pickers. These days, Burger King is probably wishing it had agreed, too.

In a case of corporate espionage gone very bad, the Miami-based Burger King Corp. now looks not just heartless, but clueless.

In May, a coalition of student activists and labor organizations working on behalf of immigrant Latino, Haitian and Maya Indian farm workers secured higher wage agreements from McDonald’s and Yum Brands, owner of Taco Bell and Pizza Hut.

Burger King took a different tack. It hired Diplomatic Tactical Services (DTS), a private security firm, to infiltrate the coalition. The scheme began unraveling early, with the discovery that DTS owner Cara Schaffer had posed as a Broward Community College student and attended coalition meetings. It was later revealed that DTS is unlicensed and that one of its former subcontractors faces murder charges in the slaying of four crew members of a charter fishing boat and the dumping of their bodies at sea.

As if that weren’t enough, in March a student group that supported the activist coalition received an e-mail from someone who claimed to be a University of Virginia student named Kevin. “Kevin” said he wanted to help the farm workers and asked to listen in on a strategy call. When asked to further identify himself, he did not respond. An investigation eventually determined the e-mail had come from a Burger King Corp. server.

About the same time, Burger King Vice President Stephen Grover made several web postings attacking the coalition. He posted the attacks using his middle-school daughter’s screen name.

Burger King fired Grover for “unauthorized activity on public web sites which did not reflect the company’s views.” A corporate spokesman got the ax, too.

Its cloak-and-dagger days apparently behind it, Burger King is now back at square one, negotiating with the farm workers.

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