By Pete Yost
WASHINGTON: Bridgestone Corp. has agreed to plead guilty in a price-fixing conspiracy and pay a $425 million criminal fine in a Justice Department probe that has swept the automotive parts industry.
Twenty-six companies including Tokyo-based Bridgestone have pleaded guilty or agreed to plead guilty in the Justice Department’s ongoing probe into price fixing and bid rigging. The companies have agreed to pay more than $2 billion in criminal fines. Twenty-eight people have been charged.
According to a one-count felony charge in federal court in Toledo, Bridgestone participated in allocating sales, rigging bids and raising prices of automotive anti-vibration rubber parts sold to car manufacturers in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Bridgestone sold the parts to Toyota, Nissan, Fuji Heavy Industries, Suzuki and Isuzu and some of their subsidiaries, affiliates and suppliers.
The Justice Department said Bridgestone agreed to cooperate with the government’s auto parts investigations. The plea agreement is subject to court approval.
Bridgestone’s role in the price-fixing on the rubber parts ran from 2001 to at least 2008, the government says.
In an earlier case, Bridgestone pleaded guilty in October 2011 and paid a $28 million fine for price-fixing and for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the marine hose industry.
On Thursday, the Justice Department said Bridgestone did not disclose at the time of the 2011 guilty plea that it had also participated in the anti-vibration rubber parts conspiracy. Bridgestone’s failure to disclose the earlier conspiracy was a factor in determining the $425 million fine, the department said.
The members of Bridgestone management “sincerely regret the actions that resulted in this plea agreement and that they did not discover these activities at an earlier date,” the company said.
Bridgestone said it became aware of the Justice Department rubber parts investigation in May 2012 and that it became aware through that investigation that some employees had engaged in acts that violated U.S. antitrust laws from 2001 to 2008.
The company said it is confident that the activities which led to the charges ceased in 2008, following full implementation of a global compliance initiative by the company.
In the rubber parts case, during meetings and conversations, the conspirators agreed on bids, prices and allocating sales, which resulted in Bridgestone then accepting payments that were at non-competitive prices, according to the charge.
Anti-vibration rubber products are installed in suspension systems and engine mounts to reduce engine and road vibration. They are typically custom designed to fit specific autos and are developed over a year in advance of an automobile model entering the marketplace. Before ordering the rubber products, manufacturers request pricing from suppliers. When a supplier receives part orders, it provides them for the duration of the model, which is four to six years.
Bridgestone’s U.S.-based unit is called Bridgestone Americas and is headquartered in Nashville.
The company’s tire division operates a newly opened technical center at South Main Street and Wilbeth Road in Akron. Bridgestone Americas has about 780 employees in Akron.