A Taiwanese company has been fined $500 million and two of its former top executives sentenced to three years in prison for their leading roles in a global LCD screen price-fixing conspiracy.
The sentences handed down Thursday are among the harshest penalties ever given in an antitrust criminal case.
Still, the U.S. Department of Justice complained the punishment was not enough. Federal prosecutors demanded a $1 billion fine and a 10-year prison sentence for the executives.
U.S. District Judge Susan Illston said she rejected the demand because A.U. Optronics has already paid out millions to settle a class-action lawsuit and still faced other lawsuits around the world.
LCD screen price-fixing conspiracy earns company $500mn fine
She also said the two former executives – Hsuan Bin Chen and Hui Hsiung – didn't deserve the lengthy prison sentences demanded by prosecutors because they acted not for personal gain like someone operating a Ponzi scheme but out of their sincere belief that they were aiding a troubled industry plagued by over-production and plummeting prices.
The Justice Department called the company “remorseless.”
DOJ is wrapping up a yearslong investigation of the global price-fixing scheme that artificially increased the price of LCD screens used in televisions, computers and other electronic products made by Apple Inc., Dell Computers and many of the largest high-tech companies in the United States.
“The conspiracy affected every family, school, business, charity, and government agency that paid more to purchase notebook computers, computer monitors, and LCD televisions during the conspiracy,” prosecutors concluded in arguing for the criminal penalties.
AU Optronics and the other co-conspirators are also the targets of class action lawsuits filed by customers, retailers and consumers.
In July, the company, along with Toshiba and LG, agreed to pay a combined $571 million to settle one of the lawsuits. Other manufactures, including Hitachi, Sharp and Samsung, agreed in December to pay $538 million to settle.
Seven other Asian manufacturers and 22 of their executives have previously pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a combined $890 million in fines. The 10 executives who have been sentenced so far received prison terms ranging from six months to a little more than year in prison.
It's the largest criminal antitrust case ever prosecuted by the DOJ, surpassing the breakup of a vitamin cartel in the late 1990's that netted $875 million in criminal fines.
To date, F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd.'s $500 million fine for participating in the vitamin price-fixing scheme remains the largest antitrust fine. The DOJ's annual collection of antitrust criminal fines only topped $1 billion once in the past 10 years, according to a report compiled by the law firm Gibson Dunn.
A jury found AU Optronics, Chen, its former president, and former executive vice president Hsiung guilty and acquitted two others. The jury couldn't agree on a verdict for a fifth executive, and prosecutors dropped charges.
AU Optronics refused to plea bargain with the DOJ, becoming the only company to go to trial.