COMMERCE, Ga. - Political leaders from Georgia await a big decision in Washington this fall that has nothing to do with the presidential election.
It deals with a sprawling battery plant under construction right now in Jackson County, and whether the Korean company that’s building it will be punished over allegations of cheating.
In March 2019, SK Innovation broke ground on what is now a $2.6 billion plant in Jackson County. The company’s subsidiary, SK Battery America, promises to hire 2600 people to manufacture batteries for the growing electric vehicle market.
SK Battery America plans to open this factory in 2022. The company promises 2600 jobs in Jackson County, but it faces an October decision by the International Trade Commissioner over findings SK stole a competitor's trade secrets and tried to hide th
State and local governments kicked in $300 million worth of tax breaks — plus donating the land the factory sits on.
But just five weeks after the politicians flipped their ceremonial shovels of dirt, a rival company slung some mud of its own: SK Innovation was cheating. And the allegations are tied to the Jackson County plant.
Congressman Doug Collins (fourth from right) was one of the many elected leaders excited to welcome SK Battery America to Jackson County. He said he had no idea the company was suspected of stealing trade secrets from a competitor.
LG Chem is an even bigger car battery manufacturer in South Korea. It sued SKI in federal court and with the International Trade Commission. It’s the ITC complaint that has some Georgia elected leaders concerned.
According to that complaint, the alleged cheating ramped up as SKI made plans to move into the US market and ultimately begin building the Jackson County factory.
The company had already signed a deal to provide batteries to the Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, TN.
In the complaint, LG Chem accused SKI of interviewing their people for jobs, gleaning proprietary information, then deliberately deleting company emails in an attempt to hide their shady actions.
One of many deleted SK Innovation emails recovered by investigators after LG Chem accused its rival of stealing its secrets.
ITC staffers ultimately recovered many of those deleted emails. They are not pretty.
“Please delete everything in the emails that discuss L-Company,” said one. “You know why.”
“Delete every material related to the rival company…” said another.
“Delete this email after completing this directive.” That message was on multiple deleted emails.
The ITC law judge wrote because the cover-up was so blatant, he decided there was no need to hold a hearing on the trade secrets theft allegation. He ruled against SKI without giving the company a chance to defend itself.
“They need to be open and honest with their case and make sure they’re not doing something they shouldn’t be doing,” said Congressman Doug Collins.
Collins was one of those elected leaders at the groundbreaking happy to welcome SK Battery America to Georgia.
He said he didn’t know then that LG Chem was about to make public its trade secrets theft complaints against SKI.
The International Trade Commission is supposed to decide SKI’s fate by October. Worst-case scenario: an exclusion order which would forbid SKI from operating in the United States.
Local union leaders meet to figure out how to get more Americans construction jobs at the SK Battery Georgia plant.
That has put state and local leaders in an uncomfortable position: writing letters of support to the ITC for SKI while at the same time trying not to condone the questionable actions of the company.
Some of those letters cited the local construction jobs already generated by the plant.
“That’s a joke,” complained union leader David Cagle.
Cagle convinced Collins to ask Immigration and Customs Enforcement to review who’s really being hired to build the plant.
Cagle complained Americans are being passed over for standard construction jobs in favor of Korean workers who may not be in this country legally.
A portion of the letter from the Jackson County Board of Commissioners to the International Trade Commission urging that SK Battery Georgia be allowed to stay open.
In May, Customs caught 33 Koreans at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport with what it called “fraudulent employment letters” to get jobs building the battery plant.
“My personal opinion is there’s a lot of politicians that’s going to have egg on their face,” said Cagle.
Business analysts in Korea predict LG and SKI will ultimately reach a financial settlement, allowing the Jackson County plant to open on schedule in 2022. SK Battery said there is no change to that timetable.
In a statement to the FOX 5 I-Team, the company said it “remains confident in the merits of our case.”
“SK Innovation will vigorously defend ourselves in this matter to ensure a robust, innovative EV battery industry in the U.S.”
The statement made no mention of all those deleted emails.