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Conviction Arising From Heating Oil Cartel

On 3 May 2012, a jury in Galway Circuit Criminal Court unanimously found a former oil company employee guilty of having participated in a home heating oil cartel. Pat Hegarty was the final member of the Galway heating oil cartel to undergo trial. He was fined €30,000 and given a suspended two year jail sentence. 

The Galway heating oil cartel came to light in 2001 following an application to the Competition Authority under the Cartel Immunity Programme. The Competition Authority subsequently investigated price fixing of kerosene and gas oil by home heating oil distributors in the Galway city and county areas.

The Competition Authority referred the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions which, in 2004, brought criminal proceedings against 24 individuals and companies for fixing the price of home heating oil. The majority of the defendants entered guilty pleas, incurring fines of up to €15,000, with one defendant receiving a suspended six month jail sentence.

Pat Hegarty, the final defendant in the heating oil cartel, denied charges of price fixing and challenged the case against him. The Competition Act provides that it is an offence for directors, managers and similar officers of an undertaking to authorise or consent to anti-competitive behaviour by the undertaking. Pat Hegarty challenged his prosecution on the basis that no conviction had been obtained in relation to the company which he managed.

The question was put to the Supreme Court and in October 2011 it ruled that officers may be tried for competition offences even if the employer company has not been formally convicted. It is sufficient in such circumstances that the jury makes a finding of fact, on the basis of evidence put before it during the trial of the officer, that the company has committed a competition offence. Pat Hegarty’s trial subsequently proceeded resulting in his conviction on 3 May.

This brings to 18 the number of convictions arising out of the heating oil cartel. The level of the fines and prison sentences imposed are characteristic of the increasingly severe penalties being handed down by Irish courts for competition law offences.

View further articles on the case here and here.

Contributed by Claire Waterson.
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