( AP ) - European Union regulators Tuesday imposed fines totaling about $109.6 million on Japanese companies Sony Corp., Fujifilm Holdings Corp. and Hitachi Maxell Ltd. for running a cartel that fixed prices on professional videotapes sold in Europe.
"Between 1999 and 2002, Sony, Fuji and Maxell managed to raise or otherwise control prices through a series of regular meetings and other illicit contracts," said a statement from the European Commission.
Sony, Fuji and Maxell had a combined share of more than 85 percent of the professional video market. The main customers were TV stations, independent TV producers and makers of advertising films.
The biggest fine of 47.19 million euros ($69.15 million) went to Sony, which the commission accused of obstructing its investigation.
The other companies had their penalties reduced because they cooperated with the probe. Fuji received a fine of 13.2 million euros ($19.34 million) and Maxell 14.4 million euros ($21.1 million).
Inspectors from the EU's executive branch raided the companies' European subsidiaries in May 2002.
"Abundant evidence of cartel activities was found," the commission said.
It complained that one Sony employee had refused to answer questions from the inspectors and another had shredded documents during the raid.
"Obstructing a commission's antitrust investigation leads to severe penalties," said Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes.
In Tokyo, Sony spokeswoman Mariko Yamabe said the company had no immediate comment because it is still confirming the content of European Union's announcement.
Masahiro Takahashi, a spokesman at Hitachi Maxell said his company will "make an appropriate response" to the EU measure after thoroughly examining the order. Takahashi said the company has not decided whether to appeal.
Fujifilm officials in Tokyo were not immediately available for comment.
The cartel covered the two most popular professional videotape formats at the time, Betacam SP and Digital Betacam, which had 2001 sales of 115 million euros ($168.5 million) in Europe, the Commission said.
On top of the fines, the EU said the three companies could face legal action for damages from customers.
"They (customers) are able to go to national courts to seek damages," said Jonathan Todd, the Commission's antitrust spokesman.
According to the EU, the companies "organized three successful rounds of price increases and endeavored to stabilize prices whenever an increase was not possible."
The fines are the first handed out under the commission's new guidelines for cartels, which aim to encourage cooperation and hand out harsher punishments for obstruction and repeat offenders.