On March 12, 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that Espar Inc., pleaded guilty to one count of price-fixing under the Sherman Act in a scheme involving parking heaters for commercial vehicles that ran from October 2007 through December 2012.  Parking heaters heat the inside of a vehicle when the engine is not running.

According to the press release, Espar, a parking heater manufacturer, agreed to pay a criminal fine and cooperate in the DOJ’s ongoing investigation.  Espar and its co-conspirators discussed prices for parking heaters and agreed to set a price floor for parking heater kits sold to aftermarket customers.  Further, the companies agreed to coordinate the timing and amount of price increases, and enforced the agreement by exchanging information.  Investigation into the other companies is ongoing, with assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Although the judge initially agreed to Espar’s and DOJ’s joint request to waive the pre-sentence investigation report and schedule sentencing on the same day as the plea hearing, the judge later changed his mind.  The judge stated in his order that his review of the pre-sentence report would ensure that “the agreed-upon fine is not too modest” and address any concerns that the terms of the plea agreement may implicate Fifth Amendment issues for individual employees who are required to cooperate with DOJ.  Espar’s plea agreement is still subject to court approval, and sentencing is scheduled for June 5, 2015.  The maximum fine for price-fixing in violation of the Sherman Act for corporations is either $100 million, or the amount twice the gain derived from the crime or twice the loss suffered by the victims—whichever is greater.

DOJ Assistant Attorney General Bill Baer stated that the “plea demonstrates the Antitrust Division’s commitment to holding companies accountable for conspiracies that fix prices on parts used in every day products,” and that “[t]he Antitrust Division will vigorously prosecute companies that engage in schemes that subvert normal competitive processes and defraud American consumers and businesses.”

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