ATLANTA -- One by one, the titans of the Coca-Cola Co. are leaving -- the head of the North American division, the chief executive, and now the general counsel.
Analysts were asking Monday whether the federal investigations of the past year are finally taking their hold on the Atlanta-based soft drink giant.
''Things are all happening within a couple of months. You almost have to look at the why," said Todd Stender, an analyst with Crowell, Weedon & Co. in Los Angeles. ''In the wake of [CEO] Doug Daft leaving, the general counsel leaving, you wonder what the company's focus is."
The departures started in August when Tom Moore, a Coca-Cola executive accused in a whistle-blower lawsuit of sham accounting and rigging a marketing test, stepped down. In December, Jeff Dunn, who headed Coke's North America division and oversaw a company restructuring, said he would leave.
In February, Daft said he would retire as chairman and chief executive at the end of this year after five years at the helm.
Capping things off, Coke said in a memo Sunday that general counsel Deval Patrick also is leaving.
Moore, Dunn, and Patrick were all key executives at Coke when the Justice Department said last summer it was investigating the company's business practices. The Securities and Exchange Commission also is investigating.
Former finance manager Matthew Whitley said in the lawsuit that prompted the investigations that he was fired five days after he e-mailed Patrick a copy of his memo detailing his allegations of fraud at Coke. The company has insisted Whitley was laid off due to downsizing, and Coke has since settled its lawsuit with Whitley for $540,000.
Patrick, a former general counsel at Texaco who also has served as assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, did not return telephone calls Monday seeking comment on his resignation.
''In the last few years, Coke has had a complex and not entirely happy legal picture and I think that Deval's leaving makes sense for both him and Coke in light of that," said John Sicher, editor of Beverage Digest. ''Coke is at a crossroads now, and crossroads can be complicated times."
However, his departure sets the company's push for diversity back. Patrick was Coke's highest-ranking black officer. He was hired in 2001, shortly after the company agreed to settle a class-action racial discrimination lawsuit filed by black employees.
In February, one of Coke's highest-ranking black female executives, Coretha Rushing, said she would resign as head of Coke's human resources department. Rushing helped to settle the race discrimination class action lawsuit involving current and former black employees that resulted in Coke agreeing to pay $192.5 million in damages.
An independent task force set up in the wake of the lawsuit said in a December report that the recent trend of executive-level promotions at Coke reflects an absence of diversity.
Coke director Jimmy Williams, former chairman and CEO of SunTrust Banks, said he doesn't believe the ongoing federal investigations are the reason for the top-level changes at Coke. At the same time, he said he hopes the changes make the company stronger.
''We've still got the same world-class company, the same products," Williams said. ''We're always trying to improve, but I don't think we're moving in a different direction."
The changes, however, have meant Coke has had to spend a lot of time over the last year searching for replacements. And while Coke's stock price has strengthened in recent months, and the beverage maker has posted strong profits, sales in its key North America division have lagged the company's expectations. Coke shares rose 4 cents yesterday to $50.89 per share on the New York Stock Exchange.
Chief deputy counsel Geoff Kelly is replacing Patrick on an interim basis. Dunn was replaced in February with Donald Knauss, promoted from the North American unit's retail division.
As for Daft, Coke has assigned several board members to lead a search committee. A leading headhunter firm has also been hired to assist. Coke has narrowed the search to about a half-dozen serious candidates, a source with knowledge of the selection process said on condition of anonymity. Coke has not released any names.
Williams, who is on Coke's search committee, said president and chief operating officer Steve Heyer is still a serious candidate for the top job. He is the only internal candidate.