The competition watchdog has for the first time used its power to launch criminal prosecutions for cartel behaviour in a case filed against Japanese shipping group NYK.

Federal Court records show the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission filed a criminal indictment of NYK on Thursday.
It is the first time the ACCC has used its criminal cartel powers, which attract stiff penalties including jail time, since they were granted in 2009 following the watchdog’s exposure of collusion between packaging giants Visy and Amcor.

If found guilty, corporations face swingeing fines of up to $10m, 10 per cent of their annual turnover or three times their ill-gotten gains, whichever is larger, while individuals can be jailed for up to 10 years.

The exact charges against NYK, which stands for Nippon Yusen Kabushiki, are not known because the ACCC’s indictment was not available from the Federal Court this afternoon.

However, in March the US Department of Justice said it had jailed an executive of the company, Susumu Tanaka, for 15 months for his role in a price-fixing and bid-rigging conspiracy over international shipping of roll-on, roll-off cargo such as cars and trucks.

This followed NYK paying a US$59.4m fine in December after pleading guilty over its involvement in the same conspiracy from 1997 until 2012.

Three companies, including NYK, have pleaded guilty to participating in the cartel and have been fined a total of US$136m, the DOJ said at the time.

NYK has also been targeted by Japan’s Fair Trade Commission, which in March 2014 ordered it to pay 13bn yen (about $160m) for being part of a group that “agreed to mutually refrain from contending for customers by not offering lower freight rates and to raise or maintain freight rates”.

Routes on which NYK conspired to fix prices included those between Japan and Australia, the FTC said.

The ACCC declined to comment.

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