CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Canada's competition watchdog said on Thursday 13 people and 11 companies were charged with price-fixing at gasoline stations in Quebec following an investigation that included wiretaps, searches and informants.
The Competition Bureau said a Quebec court imposed C$2 million ($2 million) in fines against three of the companies and one person who pleaded guilty to the conspiracy against a backdrop of sky-high pump prices.
Criminal charges were laid under competition legislation after the bureau gathered evidence of agreements among station operators to set pump prices in Victoriaville in southern Quebec, the agency said.
The investigations, which began more than two years ago, then uncovered similar activities in Thetford Mines, Magog and Sherbrooke. Three companies and one person pleaded guilty to the charges, the agency said.
The stations operate under the banners of such major oil companies as Shell (RDSa.L), Esso (IMO.TO), Petro-Canada PCA.TO and Irving Oil, but the bureau stressed that it was the local operators who were responsible for fixing pump prices.
The bureau said its investigators found evidence that station operators phoned one another to agree on prices to charge consumers.
"The evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of gasoline retailers in these markets participated in the cartel," the bureau said.
One large company, Ultramar Ltee, owned by San Antonio, Texas-based Valero Energy Corp (VLO.N), was fined C$1.9 million, and one of its employees, Jacques Ouellet, was slapped with a C$50,0000 fine,
Ultramar said it would not challenge the charges and stressed that none of its managers was involved in a conspiracy. The company said it believed its employees acted out of carelessness without taking into consideration the rules.
"Although Ultramar could have raised a certain number of legal arguments to challenge the accusations, it felt that it would be in the best interests of all to plead guilty to avoid a long and costly trial," Ultramar Vice-President Christian Houle said in a statement.
The bureau said that after it executed search warrants, the corporations approached the agency to co-operate with its probe under an immunity program.
Reporting by Jeffrey Jones; Editing by Frank McGurty