OFT readies first criminal action for oil trio

The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) could bring its first criminal cartel prosecution after three British oil industry executives were found guilty of price-fixing by a US court.

In an unprecedented co-ordination between the US and the UK, the three men will be flown back here after sentencing in a Houston court today (12 December). Once back, they will plead guilty and serve prison sentences in the UK as long as their terms behind bars are at least equal to what they would have served in America.

In the US, price-fixing can carry a jail term of ten years, although because the three are pleading guilty, then can expect to serve less.

Criminal and regulatory partner Michael O’Kane and head of fraud and regulatory Jo Rickards at Peters & Peters are advising two of the executives, Bryan Allison and David Brammar, who both worked at German tyre-maker Continental’s subsidiary Dunlop Oil & Marine. In the US the men are being advised by Michael Ramsey, the attorney to Enron’s late chairman Kenneth Lay.

The presiding judge in the Houston Court on this case, Judge Sim Lake, also sentenced Lay on ten counts of fraud and conspiracy.

The third man, Peter Whittle, who was a consultant in the marine hose industry where the price-fixing took place, is being advised by name partner Colin Nott at Hallinan Blackburn Gittings & Nott.

Filings in the US court show that under plea-bargaining negotiations, Allison agreed to serve two years and pay a $100,000 fine (£49,276); Whittle will also pay that amount together with a 30-month sentence; and Brammar will serve 20 months and pay a $75,000 (£36,957) fine.

It is expected that the OFT will instruct specialist criminal counsel on the case when it is heard in the UK, although it is not yet clear who.

The competition regulator was given powers by the 2002 Enterprise Act to bring criminal charges against executives of anti-competitive companies, but this case will be the first time the OFT will use these powers. Other cases could potentially arise in the time between the men arriving back in the UK and being tried in a court.

The OFT declined to comment.

The news comes as the US Attorney General Michael Mukasey pledged that he would forward the European Union/US extradition and mutual legal assistance treaties to the Senate for its consent.