Canadian Investigators Level Charges In Price Fixing

The Competition Bureau in Canada has named 11 companies and 13 individuals in what it says has been a price-fixing scam at a number of gas stations in various Canadian markets, and three of the companies have already pleaded guilty.

The agency brought criminal charges against 11 companies and 13 people tied to various Quebec companies, and three companies pleaded guilty, including Ultramar, one of the largest marketers and refiners of petroleum products in Canada.

Ultramar was fined $1.85 million, while one of its regional sales representatives, Jacques Ouellet, was fined $50,000 by the Competition Bureau and was fired by Ultramar, according to Canwest News Service.

Bureau commissioner Sheridan Scott told Canwest News Service she believes 21 out of 22 gas stations in Thetford Mines, 23 out of 24 stations in Victoriaville, and 56 out of 65 stations in Sherbrooke cooperated to fix prices from 2005 to 2007. Stores in the community of Magog were also involved in the investigation.

An Ultramar spokesman told Canwest News the company is shocked that an employee was found to have participated in the price-fixing.

"All our people in the sales department know this is something that’s prohibited. We have a strict code of conduct," Louis Forget, Ultramar’s vice president of public and government affairs, told Canwest. "So to have one of our employees involved in something like that is a shock for everybody."

Forget said Ultramar pleaded guilty to the charges once it heard the evidence against Ouellet. For the eight companies that pleaded not guilty, the case will go to criminal trial in Quebec Superior Court.

The other companies that pleaded guilty included Les Petroles Therrien Inc. and Distributions Petrolieres Therrien Inc., operating under the banner Petro-T. Both were fined $179,000. The companies that pleaded not guilty sell under the banners of Esso, Shell, Petro Canada, Irving, Olco and Sonerco.

Scott, the Bureau commissioner, said the companies in question phoned each other in advance to determine a price and a time to change the price.

The Competition Bureau said that, while some of the accused operated under the name or "banner" of a major oil company, in those cases the local operators of the gas stations were responsible for setting the final price at the pump.

Among the companies charged were Phillippe Gosselin and Associes Limitee, Alimentation Couche-Tard, Les Petroles Global Inc., Varietes Jean-Yves Plourde Inc., Les Petroles Cadrin Inc., Quebec Inc. and Ultramar.

On June 13, Alimentation Couche-Tard said it had officially reviewed the accusations made against it and two of its employees by the Competition Bureau in four cities in Quebec.

“While Couche-Tard takes these accusations very seriously, the company intends to defend itself vigorously,” the company’s statement said. “Couche-Tard has always instituted very clear policies to ensure that its activities are in complete compliance with applicable laws and regulations, including the Competition Act. Couche-Tard management has never supported work practices that run contrary to the law or the interests of our customers and for this reason, we have fully collaborated with the investigators’ work.”

“At Couche-Tard, the trust of our customers has always been our top priority,” the company said. “Well-established across Quebec, Couche-Tard has always been actively involved in the heart of communities in which it does business and hopes to continue this privileged relationship. It should be noted that these accusations have not been proven. Given the nature of the investigation underway, Couche-Tard will not comment further at this time.”

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