Japan-based auto parts maker Sanden agreed yesterday to plead guilty and pay a $3.2 million criminal fine to the Department of Justice for its role in a conspiracy to suppress and eliminate competition for the purchase of compressors used in air conditioning systems sold to Nissan North America.

According to a one-count felony charge filed Jan. 27 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Sanden conspired to fix the prices of compressors sold to Nissan.  In addition to the criminal fine, Sanden has agreed to cooperate in the Justice Department’s ongoing investigation. The plea agreement is subject to court approval.

In a statement, Brent Snyder, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division, said the charges represent the latest in the Antitrust Division’s ongoing investigation of automobile parts suppliers. “The Division continues to vigorously prosecute companies and individuals that seek to maximize their profits through illegal, anticompetitive means,” he said.

According to the Justice Department, Sanden and its co-conspirator held meetings and conversations to discuss and agree upon the bids and price quotations submitted to Nissan for the purchase of compressors used in automotive air conditioning systems.  Sanden’s involvement in the conspiracy lasted from as early as August 2008 until at least April 2009.

Including Sanden, 33 companies and 50 individuals have been charged in the Justice Department’s ongoing investigation into price fixing and bid rigging in the automotive parts industry.  All of the charged companies have pleaded guilty or have agreed to plead guilty and to pay a combined total of more than $2.4 billion in fines.

Sanden is charged with fixing prices in violation of the Sherman Act, which carries a maximum criminal fine of $100 million. The maximum fine may be increased to twice the gain derived from the crime, or twice the loss suffered by the victims of the crime, if either of those amounts exceeds the statutory maximum fine.