(Reuters) - Ohio filed an antitrust lawsuit against agribusiness Cargill Inc and Morton Salt Inc on Wednesday, accusing the companies of driving up the cost of road de-icing rock salt during the past decade.
The complaint, filed by the attorney general in Tuscarawas County Common Pleas Court, alleges Cargill and Morton, the state's only two rock salt miners, conspired to reduce bidding competition and thus artificially drove up prices paid by public entities.
Attorney General Mike DeWine said Cargill and Morton agreed not to compete with each other's public entity rock salt accounts and submitted intentionally losing bids to conceal the conspiracy. A "Buy Ohio" provision enacted by the state's lawmakers gives preference to Ohio-based products when there are at least two bidders.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction to keep the companies from continuing such an agreement, disgorgement of as much as $50 million in ill-gotten gains and fees and court costs.
Cargill, one of the leading producers of rock salt in North America, denied the allegations.
"The state's own report from 2011, by its Inspector General, doesn't support the allegations," said Cargill spokesman Mark Klein. "As the inspector general said in its report, it 'did not find evidence that (Cargill and Morton) communicated on salt bids.'
"That same year, Erie County, for itself and several other entities in Ohio, sued Cargill in Erie County making similar allegations and that lawsuit has been dismissed with prejudice," Klein said.
Morton Salt, a unit of German chemical and minerals company K+S AG, also denied the allegations, calling the lawsuit "baseless and not supported by the facts."
Reporting by Karl Plume in Chicago; Editing by Bill Trott and Alden Bentley