Jury convicts AU Optronics of LCD price-fixing

By @ibtimes on

A U.S. jury found AU Optronics Corp guilty of criminal price-fixing in a case in which the Taiwan-based electronics company was accused of conspiring with other manufacturers of liquid crystal display panels.

U.S. prosecutors accused company executives of meeting more than 60 times at luxury hotels to fix prices of LCD panels, a conspiracy they say cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars.

Other companies, including LG Electronics Inc, have already pleaded guilty in the LCD probe, while Samsung Electronics Co Ltd cut an early deal to avoid prosecution.

In a statement, the U.S. Justice Department said AU Optronics faces a maximum fine of $1 billion.

AU, the world's No.4 LCD maker, said it would appeal the verdict and any fine.

Two AU executives were also found guilty but former AU Chief Executive L.J. Chen and a fourth executive were found not guilty. Chen's family members wept with relief when the verdict was read out on Tuesday in a San Francisco federal courtroom.

While the company is gratified for the acquittals against the executives, the company is deeply disappointed by the guilty verdict, AU said in a statement issued in Taiwan on Wednesday local time.

But (the company) remains confident that the corporation and the individuals will ultimately be vindicated during further proceedings in this matter.

Any large fine would come at a difficult time for AU, which like other panel makers is struggling with falling prices and demand. Most makers have posted several quarters of losses.

AU itself reported a worse-than-expected loss for the fourth quarter earlier this month, but forecast a pick up this year and stable panel prices.

On Tuesday, the jury decided that the total amount of gross gains derived from the conspiracy -- in which several other producers have been accused -- came to at least half a billion dollars.

Dennis Riordan, an attorney for AU Optronics, said after the verdict that the jury was not asked to answer the most pressing question -- whether U.S. price-fixing laws apply to acts committed on foreign soil.

During the trial, one of AU Optronics's lawyers also argued that the company competed fiercely and the mere exchange of information between companies is not illegal.

The company added in its statement that it presented undisputed evidence that it consistently priced below the so-called crystal prices from 2001 to 2006, which the company believes to be solid evidence that it did not participate in any price fixing agreement.

AU Optronics and five of its current and former executives -- including Chen, who remains a top executive at the company -- pleaded not guilty. The jury deadlocked on the fifth executive.

One of those convicted, Hsuan-Bin Chen, is currently vice chairman of the company's board.

U.S. District Judge Susan Illston will sentence the two men found guilty and impose fines against the company after she hears motions for a new trial.

Before the trial, Riordan said, Illston rejected a motion to dismiss the case because the alleged crimes took place outside the United States.

This is a huge case, he said. It's really the appeal that's going to determine what this means.

One juror, a middle-aged white woman who declined to give her name, said the jurors took the testimony of those who pleaded guilty in the LCD probe with a grain of salt but relied on it nonetheless.

All the decisions were difficult. We took it very seriously, she said. We didn't say, 'It's just a corporation, it's easier to convict.'

The jury also convicted Hui Hsiung, and it acquitted Tsannrong Hubert Lee. The panel deadlocked 8-4 in favor of convicting Shiu Lung Steven Leung, according to the juror, who said it spend three days wrestling with Leung's fate.

U.S. prosecutors will have to decide whether to retry Leung.

Jurors deliberated for more than one week.

The criminal trial began in early January and prosecutors presented several witnesses. The company and its executives called only one expert witness before resting their case, according to one defense attorney involved in the proceedings.

(Reporting by Ronnie Cohen, Edwin Chan and Dan Levine in SAN FRANCISCO and Jonathan Standing in TAIPEI; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Richard Pullin)

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