Oil firms’ price fixing fines upheld

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Oil firms’ price fixing fines upheld

After eight years of legal battles, the Supreme Court has confirmed an earlier verdict that the nation’s three major oil refiners - SK Energy, GS Caltex and Hyundai Oilbank - should pay a total of 320 million won ($269,000) for oil price fixing.

The country’s highest court ruled on Thursday that SK had to pay a 150 million won fine, GS a 100 million won fine and Hyundai a 70 million won for fixing oil prices.

Four companies - SK Energy, GS Caltex, Hyundai Oilbank and S-Oil - were accused by the Fair Trade Commission (FTC) for fixing oil prices from April 1 to June 10 in 2004.

The FTC said in 2007 it found the companies colluded to lower the discount rate on gasoline and diesel, and reported it to the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office after imposing a 52.6 billion won fine. The companies contested the fine. S-Oil was later acquitted by the prosecution.

In the recent ruling, the court found that the oil refiners had meetings regularly since April 4 to promote mutual profits and such moves were obtained by the prosecution from SK Energy.

In a report filed by SK in June 2004, the company said, “The plans to stabilize the oil prices through the meetings aren’t efficient,” and another report filed by SK in May included details that it checked whether GS Caltex was selling gas at fixed prices.

The companies said in court that the meetings were held to jointly deal with fake oil that was being sold at some local gas stations, not to fix product prices. But the claims turned out to be untrue, as one witness who participated in the meetings testified that the meeting to discuss fake oil was held in early 2004 and the companies tried to fix prices through diverse channels via online and offline meetings.

“The documents about the meetings showed specific dates and details of employees of each company who are in charge of pricing strategy attempting to fix prices,” the court said in the ruling. “Considering that 79 percent of the market is taken by these three companies, the companies were able to make less effort in price competition through the meetings.”

SK Innovation, the mother company of SK Energy, said it accepted the ruling. “We respect the court’s ruling and will pay the fine as soon as possible,” said a spokesman for SK Innovation. “We will also try our best [to ensure] that our employees do not make such attempts again in the future.”

GS Caltex and Hyundai Oilbank have not released any official statement on the rulings.

BY KWON SANG-SOO [kwon.sangsoo@joongang.co.kr]
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