Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Ten Years On Air Freight Anti-Trust Bloodhounds Hunt Down the Last Accused

Shipping Executive Brought to Trial in the US After a Decade
Shipping News Feature

US – NETHERLANDS – ITALY – Maria Christina 'Meta' Ullings, the former Senior Vice President of Cargo Sales and Marketing for Martinair and a Dutch national, has been extradited from Italy to the US to face charges for her alleged role in a long-running worldwide conspiracy to fix prices of air cargo. The decision however has sent waves of dissent amongst many in the logistics industry who feel it has elements of a witch hunt.

Whilst Ullings has been pursued ruthlessly by the Department of Justice (DoJ) for almost a decade as what is believed to be the final target in a case which saw seven freight executives jailed and over $1.8 billion in penalties pocketed by the authorities, her employers (Martinair is owned by KLM and Air France) merely did the usual trick of putting their hands up and into their pockets.

The scale of the industry scandal was almost unprecedented at the time with the companies pleading guilty including Martinair Holland, British Airways, Korean Air Lines, Qantas Airways, Japan Airlines, Cathay Pacific, SAS Cargo Group, Société Air France, KLM, EL AL Israel, LAN Cargo, Aerolinhas Brasileiras S.A., Cargolux Airlines, Nippon Cargo, China Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Asiana Airlines and Polar Air Cargo.

Whilst many in the industry will have sympathy with Ullings, who will have undoubtedly suffered under the pressure of the DoJ bloodhounds pursuing her relentlessly across the Atlantic, that is unlikely to extend to the 20 or so executives already prosecuted for the case which came about as a result of a joint investigation into the air transportation industry conducted by the Antitrust Division’s National Criminal Enforcement Section, the FBI’s Washington Field Office, the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General and the US Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General.

Ullings was indicted on September 21, 2010, in the US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia in Atlanta, for participating in a conspiracy to fix prices of air cargo. A fugitive for almost 10 years, the native of the Netherlands was apprehended by Italian authorities in July 2019 while visiting Sicily. Ullings initially contested extradition in the Italian courts, but after the Court of Appeal in Palermo ruled that she be extradited, she waived her plea. She arrived in Atlanta on January 10 and made her initial appearance in the US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia on January 13.

According to the indictment, Ullings conspired with others to suppress and eliminate competition by fixing and coordinating certain surcharges, including fuel surcharges, charged to customers located in the United States and elsewhere for air cargo shipments. These air freight shipments included heavy equipment, perishable commodities, and consumer goods. Ullings is alleged to have participated in the conspiracy from at least as early as January 2001 until at least February 2006.

Ullings is charged with violating the Sherman Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $1 million criminal fine for individuals. 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 is greater than the statutory maximum fine. An indictment merely alleges that crimes have been committed, and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

In April 2009 Frank de Jong, former vice president of cargo sales in Europe and colleague of Ullings at Martinair and a fellow Dutch national, agreed to plead guilty, serve time in jail and pay a criminal fine for participating in meetings, conversations and communications to discuss the cargo rates to be charged on certain routes, agreeing to fix prices on these and subsequently charging the agreed rates and monitoring to ensure all those involved were complying.

Mr de Jong agreed to an eight month jail term and a $20,000 fine, it remains to be seen if, should she be found guilty, Ms Ullings, seemingly the last to be prosecuted over the affair, receives equivalent punishment.

Photo: Courtesy of NT.