Chile finance minister lashes out at lithium miner SQM top shareholder Julio Ponce -TV interview

SANTIAGO, Dec 30 (Reuters) - Chilean Finance Minister Ignacio Briones said in a television interview Wednesday that Julio Ponce, a principal shareholder of SQM, the world’s second largest lithium producer, “would be in jail” had a case of illicit trading brought against him in Chile been conducted in the United States.

Chile’s stock market regulator in 2014 fined Ponce, then chairman of SQM and former son-in-law of late dictator Augusto Pinochet, nearly $70 million for his role in a market manipulation scandal known locally as the “Caso Cascadas.”

Ponce appealed that fine - then the largest ever handed down by the Chilean regulator - in a lower court and won. The lower court slashed the penalty to less than $3 million, a decision upheld by the country’s Supreme Court in October.

Finance Minister Briones said in an interview on Chilean television program Stock Disponible that the fines would have been far stiffer in a country like the United States.

“It’s not my role to second guess the court’s decisions... but if you were to ask me, this case, in the United States, what would have happened? He’d be in jail,” Briones said of Ponce.

Both SQM and Ponce’s attorney declined to comment on Briones’ statement.

Briones said on the television program such corruption cases undermined Chile’s democracy.

“I think these cases generate a sense of inequality before the law, and that is awful for our democracy,” Briones said.

The South American nation, a top lithium and copper producer, last year saw mass protests against inequality that led to a referendum vote in October in favor of rewriting the constitution.

The Cascadas case caused an uproar in Chile long before the 2019 protests, shaking investor confidence in a nation long lauded for low levels of corruption.

In a separate and unrelated case in 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice fined SQM more than $15 million in connection with payments to “politically-connected” individuals in Chile, a violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

No one was jailed in that case. (Reporting by Dave Sherwood; Editing by David Gregorio)