Closing arguments in Bristol Bay price-fixing trial

Posted: Wednesday, May 21, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) After more than three months of testimony, lawyers for Bristol Bay fishermen wrapped up their case Tuesday. They're asking the jury to return a verdict of conspiracy and levy hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

Neither market forces or collusion alone can explain why the fishermen's share of profits got smaller and smaller, attorney Steve Susman told a Superior Court jury. ''It was both.''

Japanese importers knew that if processors paid higher prices to fishermen, the prices they paid would be higher, Susman said, so they conspired with processors to cut the amount the fishermen got.

The defendant importers and processors have argued that market conditions, not a conspiracy, pushed down prices.

The defense lawyers will present their closing arguments Wednesday and Thursday. They claim the defendant companies lost millions of dollars from 1989 through 1995 buying fish from Bristol Bay, and didn't conspire to hurt the fishermen. The case is expected to go to the jury Friday.

The lawyers for the fishermen see it differently.

What happened in Bristol Bay was a reverse of the infamous Enron situation, said Parker Folse, an attorney for the fishermen.

''Enron cooked the books to make themselves look better. In this case, the defendants massaged the numbers to make themselves look worse,'' he said. ''The defendants broke the law and they must be held accountable.''

At the heart of the case is whether processors and importers exchanged pricing information to assure themselves a profit margin at the expense of the fishermen.

Fishermen's attorneys said their clients were underpaid by hundreds of millions of dollars for nearly one billion pounds of fish sold to processors during the period in question.

In the course of the long trial, which began Feb. 3, jurors have heard testimony from dozens of witnesses, including fishermen, processor and importer executives, and economists.

Processors say they lost millions of dollars on Bristol Bay salmon operations, but the lawyers for the fishermen say the figures are misleading.

''If it was really so bad, why did they hang in there so long?'' Susman asked.

Susman and Folse reminded jurors that they're being asked to determine whether there was a conspiracy to keep prices to fishermen low, and they said it doesn't matter if any of the executives actually agreed to fix prices.

If the jurors find that a conspiracy occurred, they must decide which defendants participated, whether they did so knowing that what they were doing was wrong, and what damages should be awarded, the attorneys said.

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