The Fair Trade Commission is expected to open criminal investigations into 11 major water-treatment plant makers that were raided by the antitrust watchdog in August for allegedly rigging local government bids, sources said Saturday.

The companies participated in tenders between January and March 2005, the sources said.

The companies are Ebara Corp., Kurita Water Industries Ltd., Nishihara Environment Technology Inc., JFE Engineering Corp., Sumitomo Heavy Industries Ltd., Mitsui Engineering and Shipbuilding Co., Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., Kubota Corp., Hitachi Zosen Corp, Ataka Construction & Engineering Co. and Takuma Co.

According to FTC sources, Ebara and Kubota repeatedly rigged bids for contracts from local governments for about 30 years by forming a bid-rigging scheme.

Mitsui Engineering and Takuma initially did not join in but later became members and systematically rigged bids together with the nine other companies in the January-March 2005 period, the sources said.

The companies are suspected of conspiring to select bid winners and fix bid prices for contracts to build water-treatment plants from local governments. The aim was to prevent real competition, keep bid prices high and share the contract orders among them, according to sources.

The FTC and Osaka District Public Prosecutor’s Office are expected to press charges against those involved in bids for five projects, the sources said.

The criminal investigations will possibly start this week on major plant makers involved in the case and their officials on suspicion of violating the revised Antimonopoly Law, the first such investigation since the revised law was implemented in January, the sources said.

The projects under suspicion include one ordered by the city of Hannan, Osaka Prefecture, undertaken by Ebara; a project ordered by an administrative entity in Shizuoka Prefecture undertaken by JFE Engineering; and a project undertaken by Ebara on an order from Amagi, Fukuoka Prefecture. Amagi is now part of the city of Asakura.

Of the two other projects, one was ordered by an administrative entity in Kumamoto Prefecture and undertaken by Sumitomo Heavy Industries, and the other was ordered by another entity in the same prefecture with Ataka Construction & Engineering undertaking it.

Tenders for the five projects were held in February and March last year. In addition to the four successful bidders, other companies searched by the FTC last week — Kubota, Kurita Water Industries, and Hitachi Zosen — bid for the five projects.

The companies won the bids at between 93.0 percent and 98.2 percent of the maximum permissible contract prices set by authorities for the projects.

The successful bid prices ranged from 1.5 billion yen to 3.1 billion yen.

Such companies allegedly formed a bid-rigging organization about 30 years ago and have been playing major roles in adjusting the winners, the sources said.

Two companies joined the organization in 2004 to bring the total to 11.

The FTC is investigating tenders for about 10 projects undertaken in January 2005 and after, including the five projects, which the antimonopoly watchdog suspects were rigged in a more systemic manner than those undertaken earlier, the sources said.

In a related move, Osaka prosecutors were expected from Saturday to question on a voluntary basis executives of five major plant makers suspected of involvement in the bid-rigging, the sources said.

The special investigative squad of the Osaka District Public Prosecutor’s Office is planning to establish a criminal case following the expected filing of criminal accusations by the FTC.

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