Client Alert

Second Executive Ever to Be Extradited Solely on Antitrust Charges Pleads Guilty within Two Weeks of Arriving in the United States

28 Jan 2020

Less than two weeks after being extradited from Italy to the United States, Maria Christina “Meta” Ullings, former senior vice president of air cargo sales and marketing for Martinair N.V. and a Dutch national, pleaded guilty for her role in an alleged global cartel that fixed and coordinated prices in the air cargo industry. Ullings was sentenced to fourteen months in prison, the longest sentence imposed in the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division’s air cargo antitrust investigation to date. This extradition is a reminder that the Division continues to diligently pursue international price fixing cases, even though it has been relatively quiet for the past two years concerning international enforcement.

Ullings had been living as a fugitive since the Division indicted her in September 2010. In July 2019, Italian authorities apprehended her in Sicily, where she was vacationing. While initially contesting extradition in the Italian courts, Ullings waived her appeal after the Court of Appeals of Palermo ruled that she must be extradited. On January 10, 2020, Ullings arrived in Atlanta and made her initial appearance three days later in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

Ullings pleaded guilty to the charges in the indictment, which alleged that, for at least five years, Ullings and her co-conspirators suppressed and eliminated competition by fixing and coordinating certain surcharges charged to customers located in the United States and elsewhere for international air cargo shipments to and from the United States. Martinair provided international air transportation services for a variety of cargo, such as heavy equipment, perishable commodities, and consumer goods, on scheduled flights to and from the United States and elsewhere. Martinair pleaded guilty to participating in the conspiracy in 2008 and agreed to pay a $42 million criminal fine. Another former executive of the company pleaded guilty to price-fixing charges in 2009, and agreed to serve eight months in prison and pay $20,000 in fines.

This marks the second time that the Division has extradited a foreign executive on an antitrust charge. The only other successfully litigated extradition to the United States based solely on an antitrust charge occurred in April 2014 when Romano Pisciotti, former executive of a marine hose manufacturer and an Italian national, was extradited from Germany to face a charge of participating in a conspiracy to suppress and eliminate competition by rigging bids, fixing prices, and allocating market shares for sales of marine hoses in the United States.

Pisciotti had been detained under an INTERPOL “Red Notice” while making a flight connection in Frankfurt, Germany in June 2013. After unsuccessfully challenging the extradition, Pisciotti was brought to the Southern District of Florida nine months later. In April 2014, in less than a month from arriving in the United States, Pisciotti entered into a plea agreement with the Division and was sentenced to serve a total of two years in prison with credit for the nine months and 16 days he was held in custody in Germany pending his extradition. He also paid a $50,000 criminal fine. Pisciotti reportedly received no special treatment due to his status as a white collar offender – he served an extra month of jail time in the United States because the authorities lost his passport and he spent much of his time in a single cell with forty other inmates in a federal facility in Georgia.[1]

The Ullings extradition illustrates that the Division continues to pursue international price-fixing cases. Despite obtaining fewer criminal fines in recent years from international cartel violations, the Division indicated that it remains steadfast in finding those it alleges to have violated U.S. antitrust law, wherever they are located. Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim stated that “The Antitrust Division and its partners are committed to rooting out international price-fixing cartels that cheat American consumers and producers.”

Further, the Division has indicated that it remains committed to cooperating with international authorities in its investigations. In connection with the Ullings extradition, AAG Delrahim recognized the role and involvement of foreign authorities by stating, “The Division appreciates the cooperation of the Italian authorities in this matter.  With the assistance of our law enforcement colleagues at home and around the world, the Division will aggressively pursue every avenue available in bringing price fixers to justice.”

The Division has historically sought to prosecute individual executives for their roles in antitrust conspiracies. For example, Ullings was one of at least 21 total executives to be charged with price fixing in the air transportation industry and, aside from Pisciotti, at least eight other individuals pleaded guilty as a result of the Division’s marine hose investigation. Currently, dozens of indicted individuals facing federal antitrust charges remain at large, including executives from prosecutions of auto parts suppliers, liquid crystal display panel makers, and ocean shipping suppliers.[2]

Finally, these extraditions also serve as a reminder to companies of the need to adopt comprehensive and global compliance programs. As previously reported, the Division released new compliance guidelines in July 2019, announcing that it will now consider compliance programs at the charging stage in criminal antitrust investigations, making deferred prosecution agreements available for the first time. The change, along with the written guidance for how the Division will consider compliance programs at both the charging and sentencing stages, highlights the value of investing in a robust antitrust compliance program and ensuring that its executives stay within the boundaries of the antitrust laws.

 


[1] Gianni De Stefano, Meet the First Extradited Businessman on Cartel Charges, 8 J.E.C.L. & Pract. 5 (2017), available at https://academic.oup.com/jeclap/article/8/5/281/3074470.

[2] Joshua Sisco, Air cargo executive extradited from Italy to US on price-fixing charges, MLex (Jan. 14, 2020), https://www.mlex.com/GlobalAntitrust/DetailView.aspx?cid=1155386&siteid=190&rdir=1.

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