Hitachi executive charged in LCD price-fixing case

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An executive at Hitachi Ltd's 6501.T display subsidiary has been charged with involvement in a conspiracy to fix prices of Thin Film Transistor-Liquid Crystal Display (TFT-LCD) panels sold to Dell Inc, the U.S. Department of Justice said.

A man passes a logo of Japan's Hitachi Ltd at the company's reception in Tokyo in this February 2, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

The scandal at Hitachi Displays is the latest problem for Hitachi, whose flat TV business has been battered by sluggish demand and price competition, becoming one of the contributors for the company’s expected 700 billion yen annual loss.

The company is pulling out of plasma screen production and said on Wednesday it was selling a plant in Japan to oil refiner Showa Shell Sekiyu 5002.T.

Shares in Showa Shell, which said the plant may be converted to make solar cells, jumped 6.9 percent after the news.

In the U.S. scandal, Hitachi agreed earlier in March to plead guilty and pay a $31 million fine for its part in the conspiracy to fix the prices of TFT-LCD panels sold to Dell for three years, beginning in April 2001.

Hitachi Displays is owned 50.2 percent by Hitachi Ltd 6501.T, and 24.9 percent each by Canon Inc 7751.T and Panasonic Corp 6752.T.

The Justice Department said the latest indictment, returned by a federal grand jury in San Francisco, charges executive Sakae Someya with conspiring with unnamed co-conspirators to suppress and eliminate competition by fixing the price of TFT-LCD panels sold to Dell DELL.O for use in notebook computers.

Someya is charged with violating the Sherman Act, which carries a maximum fine of $1 million and 10 years imprisonment.

The indictment charges Someya participated in the conspiracy from about January 2001 through 2004.

Hitachi spokeswoman Hajime Kito declined to comment, saying the indictment only involved the individual and there would be no impact for the company.

So far, four companies and eight individuals, including Someya, have been charged and more than $585 million in fines have been imposed in an ongoing antitrust investigation, the Justice Department said.

In 2006, the global market for TFT-LCD panels was approximately $70 billion.

The likely sale of the plant in Miyazaki, southern Japan, follows a decision by Hitachi to procure plasma panels from Panasonic.

Hitachi shares gained 2.6 percent to 273 yen, while Showa Shell shares rose 6.9 percent to 958 yen. The Nikkei average .N225 rose 3 percent.

Reporting by JoAnne Allen in WASHINGTON and Sachi Izumi in TOKYO; Editing by Bernard Orr