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Ex-U.S. attorney Fishwick challenges railroad management

Ex-U.S. attorney Fishwick challenges railroad management

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John Fishwick no longer relies on Justice Department press releases to speak out the way he did as U.S. attorney.

He has his own Facebook page.

And citizen Fishwick, free from the strictures of public service, has used it to criticize corporate America.

Fishwick, who resigned three and a half months ago as the Western District of Virginia’s top federal prosecutor, says he sees a debacle of corporate waste unfolding at CSX railroad. Speaking out as a CSX shareholder, he registered a Facebook page to rally shareholders against a proposed CEO pay plan that he likens to a scourge of the American Old West.

The page is titled “Stop the CSX Train Robbery.”

Fishwick knows something about railroading. His late father ran Norfolk & Western Railway, which merged with Southern Railway in 1982 to create Norfolk Southern Corp. The younger Fishwick, after a nearly 30-year career as a private attorney, worked as U.S. attorney for about a year, leaving in January just before the change of administration in Washington, D.C. He returned to private practice.

Among his personal investments, the former U.S. attorney said he has long owned stock in CSX, Norfolk Southern’s chief competitor in markets east of the Mississippi.

In March, CSX hired a new CEO, Hunter Harrison, the former CEO of Canadian Pacific Railway. Hunter conditioned the deal on his eventually receiving $84 million in compensation he forfeited to leave Canadian Pacific in January. Before it takes action, the company’s board has scheduled an advisory shareholder vote on the extraordinary payment June 5. Hunter has said he will quit if he doesn’t receive the $84 million.

“I was bothered by it,” Fishwick said of the deal. The $84 million is “for work he did for a competitor of CSX,” he added.

Fishwick added: “This is just something I’m doing personally. I think I’m freer as a private citizen to do things like this.”

U.S. attorneys are presidential appointees sworn to a period of public service but free to resume being private citizens afterward, with a few restrictions. They can’t comment on past legal matters they handled or get involved in litigation they had overseen, said Ronald Bacigal, a law professor at the University of Richmond. He estimated that a slight majority of ex-U.S. attorneys stay quiet after they leave office “and don’t want to be in the limelight, kind of like [former President Barack] Obama is doing.”

“Some of them are very active,” Bacigal said.

John Edwards, who served as U.S. attorney in Roanoke from 1980 until 1981, later ran successfully for the Roanoke City Council and the Virginia Senate. He has been a state senator for 21 years. Former U.S. Attorney John Brownlee, who held the prosecutor’s post from 2001 until April 2008, five years later defended Gov. Bob McDonnell against criminal allegations that were tried before a jury.

In rallying against CSX management, Fishwick has questioned the cost, ethics and legality of paying Hunter $84 million. CSX also proposes to pay the income taxes that Hunter, a 72-year-old industry veteran, would owe on the $84 million, a plan Fishwick termed a “horrific example of corporate waste,” according to a Facebook posting.

CSX also agreed to pay Hunter $2.2 million a year.

Fishwick contends CSX could find a different CEO as effective as Hunter at less cost. Fans of Fishwick’s Facebook page have posted negative comments about Hunter and urged Fishwick on. He plans to attend the CSX meeting in June and hopes to speak before the vote, he said.

CSX did not immediately respond to a request for a comment Tuesday.

The company has argued for paying Harrison, citing his reputation as a turnaround expert in railroading. In addition, the company has acknowledged that the deal is high-cost and that Hunter could be ineffective at CSX or die, become disabled or leave for other reasons before the end of his four-year contract.

Global investment firms such as Vanguard and BlackRock, which own chunks of the company’s more than 923 million shares, have expressed no opposition to the pay plan. Fishwick’s campaign won’t succeed without scores of small shareholders like him voting no.

“I own 6,957 shares and they’re all voting no,” Fishwick said.

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Jeff Sturgeon covers business, banking, transportation and federal court. Phone: (540) 981-3251. Email: jeff.sturgeon@roanoke.com. Mail: 201 W. Campbell Ave., Roanoke, VA 24011.

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