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Third company pleads guilty in price-fixing conspiracy at Baltimore port

A Tokyo-based shipping line has been ordered to pay a $59.4 million fine for conspiring with other ocean carriers to fix prices and rig bids for automobile shipments in and out of Baltimore and other U.S. ports, federal law enforcement officials said Monday.

Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha, or NYK Line, is the third company to plead guilty to participating in the conspiracy amid a continuing antitrust investigation by the Justice Department.

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"This is another step in the effort to restore competition in the ocean shipping industry to the benefit of U.S. consumers," Bill Baer, assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's antitrust division, said in a statement.

"We are not done," he added.

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A NYK Line representative could not be reached for comment.

Justice Department officials announced the sweeping investigation in March, when they said the Chile-based Compania Sud Americana de Vapores had pleaded guilty to conspiring to fix prices and agreed to pay a fine of $8.9 million.

In September, officials announced that Tokyo-based Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha Ltd., or K-Line, had also pleaded guilty and agreed to pay $67.7 million.

The companies colluded to keep prices high on ocean transports of cars, trucks and other so-called roll-on, roll-off or "ro-ro" cargo to U.S. ports by working together to rig bids and allocate customers, the Justice Department said.

The conspiracy occurred between 1997 and 2012, officials said. The cases were brought in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, in part because the port of Baltimore was one of those affected by the conspiracy.

The extent to which the conspiracy played out in Baltimore is not clear, though port officials have said the diversity of Baltimore's ro-ro customers likely provided a buffer against price rigging locally.

The port of Baltimore is ranked first among U.S. ports for handling automobiles, trucks and other roll-on, roll-off cargo.

Also filed Monday was a criminal information charging Takashi Yamaguchi, a K-Line executive, with conspiring to restrain trade through the conspiracy between 2006 and 2010.

It was unclear why the new criminal information was filed individually against Yamaguchi, given K-Line's corporate settlement in the case earlier this year.

Justice Department officials did not respond to requests for comment, and neither Yamaguchi nor a K-Line representative could be reached for comment.

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