UPDATE 1-Irving Oil charged in Quebec gas-price fixing case
* Irving Oil Ltd, manager face three counts each
* Company says it will fight the charges
* Competition Bureau investigation made public in 2008
By Jeffrey Jones
CALGARY, Alberta, Sept 28 (Reuters) - Canada's Competition Bureau has charged Irving Oil Ltd, part of the big Eastern Canadian family-run business empire, and one of its managers in a sweeping Quebec gasoline price-fixing case that has already resulted in jail terms and C$3 million ($3.1 million) in fines, the agency said on Friday.
Irving Oil and the manager of the company's business in Quebec, Serge Parent, each face three charges in connection with fixing the price of fuel in Victoriaville, Thetford Mines and Sherbrooke, Quebec, the federal bureau said in a statement. Parent could not immediately be reached for comment.
Saint John, New Brunswick-based Irving Oil said it plans to fight the charges in court.
The investigation into what the competition watchdog calls a price-fixing cartel was first made public in 2008 and involved wiretaps and searches, the bureau said. To date, 15 companies and 39 individuals have been charged. Many have been sentenced and some cases are still before the courts.
Investigators found that retailers in some of the Quebec markets, or their representatives, communicated with each other to agree on prices to charge at the pumps.
Irving Oil, which runs the country's largest refinery in Saint John and a chain of service stations in Eastern Canada and the U.S. Northeast, said the charges are apparently based on the activities of former staff who have previously pleaded guilty in the case.
The company said it was not aware of price fixing activities by its staff prior to 2007.
"Our company was not aware of these activities and, when our company became aware of them, we took immediate steps to address the situation, including disciplinary action," spokeswoman Carolyn Van der Veen said in an email. "Our company believes that we should not be held responsible for the actions of employees who knowingly violated company policy."
Among the companies charged in the investigation are Couche-Tard Inc, Les Pétroles Global Inc, Ultramar and Philippe Gosselin et Associés. The Couche-Tard and Les Pétroles Global cases are still before the courts.
The bureau said such cases are hard to prove, as high or identical pump prices alone are not evidence of criminal activity.
"There must be evidence that competitors have made an illegal agreement to set those prices," it said. "When there are substantiated allegations of wrongdoing in the marketplace, the bureau will not hesitate to take action."
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