Russia’s Federal Investigative Committee said on 14th October 2013 that it had opened an investigation into Vladislav Baumgertner, CEO of potash producer Uralkali, on suspicion of abuse of power. Russian authorities confirmed that they would be seeking Mr Baumgertner’s extradition from Belarus, where he is currently under house arrest on charges of embezzlement and abuse of power.
The Criminal Code of the Russian Federation outlaws cartel agreements under Article 178, imposing fines of up to one million roubles, maximum seven year prison sentences or three years of compulsory labour.
However, it was Uralkali’s withdrawal from a potash sales cartel with Belarusian producer Belaruskali, leading to a sharp downward slide in prices, which reportedly led to Mr Baumgertner’s arrest by authorities in Minsk in August 2013. Together the cartel controlled approximately forty per cent of global potash exports. Belaruskali and Uralkali are the world’s two largest producers of potash.
Belarus has called for the arrest of Uralkali’s billionaire shareholder Suleiman Kerimov, who has since reportedly entered into negotiations to sell his stake. Potash, a soil nutrient, provides twelve per cent of the state revenue of Belarus and ten per cent of its export income. Uralkali’s withdrawal from the cartel is reported to have been unwelcome news for Belarusian president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has urged the two sides to collaborate once again in a cartel once valued at approximately $20 billion per annum.
Latest reports have suggested that Russia’s preparations for an extradition request for Mr Baumgertner are well advanced.
On 10th October 2013, a jury in San Francisco acquitted former AU Optronics executive Richard Bai of criminal price fixing charges. After a two-and-a-half week trial in the Northern District of California, the jury reached its verdict after just over a day’s deliberation.
In 2009, the US Department of Justice Antitrust Division indicted Mr Bai and five other AU Optronics executives for allegedly conspiring with LG, Samsung, Chi Mei Optoelectronics and Chunghwa Picture Tubes to fix and stablilise the price of LCD panels to customers such as Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Apple. As reported here on 30th April 2013 (see below blog post), AU Optronics executive Shiu Lung Leung was sentenced in California to two years imprisonment and a fine of $50,000 for his involvement in a criminal conspiracy to fix the prices of liquid crystal displays used in computer screens and televisions.
Against Bai, a former head of the company’s Notebook Sales division, the Department of Justice alleged that he had implemented the price fixing conspiracy through his own conduct and by directing his subordinates to co-ordinate pricing with competitors. Prosecutors further alleged that Bai had acted as the company’s point of contact for co-conspirators seeking to fix the price of screens for notebook computers.
Persuaded by Bai’s legal representatives Shearman & Sterling and trial lawyer Brian Getz, the jury rejected the Department of Justice’s allegations, concluding that, although Bai took part in a meeting with LCD rivals, there was insufficient evidence that he conspired at those meetings. Getz commented that “No-one who came to testify could say that they price-fixed with him. They admitted that they colluded with executives above him, but not with Bai himself, and I think this is what swayed the jury.”
Takata Corporation, the Tokyo-based supplier of seat belts to Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mazda and Fuji (the parent company of Subaru) will pay a US$71.3 million fine to settle conspiracy to restrain trade charges brought by the US Department of Justice Antitrust Division.
Takata is accused of conspiring with other companies between January 2003 and February 2011 to “suppress and eliminate competition in the automotive parts industry by agreeing to rig bids for, and to fix, stabilize and maintain the prices of certain seatbelts,” according to the criminal information sheet detailing charges against Takata, filed with the Detroit Court.
Reports indicate that Chairman and CEO Shigehisa Takada will take a 30 per cent cut in executive compensation while other directors take a 15 per cent cut. Gary Walker, a sales director at the company’s US subsidiary, TK Holdings, will reportedly serve a 14-month prison sentence and pay a US$20,000 fine.
Takata has pledged to continue to co-operate with ongoing Department of Justice investigations. The company stated that it “takes this matter seriously and has taken steps to strengthen its compliance programs to comply with all applicable laws and regulations. Takata has also strengthened its internal control systems to prevent a recurrence and is committed to regaining the trust of our stakeholders.”
The car industry investigation is the largest ever conducted in the United States. Settlement agreements with US antitrust authorities have been reached by several companies, including Tokai Rika, TRW Deutschland, Furukawa Electric, Fujikura and Nippon Seiki.
From the Department of Justice, Scott Hammond, of the Antitrust Division’s criminal enforcement program, said “Every time we discover a conspiracy involving the automotive industry, we seem to find another one.”