Eight years after an investigation began, a sprawling, delay-plagued criminal case targeting an alleged price-fixing conspiracy among the top players in Canada's chocolate-bar business appears to be melting away.
The Competition Bureau announced on Thursday that Crown prosecutors had stayed price-fixing charges laid in 2013 against Mars Canada Inc., wholesale distributor ITWAL Ltd., former Nestlé Canada confectionery president Sandra Martinez and ITWAL president and CEO David Glenn Stevens.
The federal watchdog said that criminal charges against Nestlé Canada and its former chief executive officer, Robert (Bob) Leonidas, remained.
But Symon Zucker, a lawyer for Ms. Martinez, said Crown prosecutors told a Toronto courtroom on Tuesday that they would take the next two months to evaluate whether to proceed against the remaining two defendants.
The Public Prosecution Service of Canada would not say why the charges were abandoned, which is not unusual. But Mr. Zucker said prosecutors told him it was because the Crown did not see any reasonable chance of a conviction against his client.
He said Ms. Martinez was pleased with the stay: "I've got a relieved and happy client who feels vindicated."
Allegations that Nestlé – the maker of chocolate bars such as Kit Kat, Coffee Crisp and Big Turk – colluded with its major competitors in Canada to co-ordinate price increases ranging from 4 per cent to 8 per cent were first revealed in 2007, after Competition Bureau investigators raided the Canadian offices of Nestlé, Hershey, Mars and ITWAL.
The collapse of the case is even more surprising, considering that the 2007 raid came after competitor Cadbury Adams Canada Inc. went to the bureau with the allegations and was granted immunity from prosecution.
Plus, just after the charges were laid in June, 2013, Hershey Canada Inc. pleaded guilty to one charge and agreed to a $4-million fine for its role, having been granted leniency for its co-operation with the investigation.
In court filings, the bureau alleged that chocolate executives met in restaurants and at conventions to discuss price increases on both regular and seasonal products such as those aimed at Halloween and Easter.
The charges against Mr. Leonidas and Nestlé have not been proven. The maximum penalties include a fine of up to $10-million and a prison sentence of up to five years.
All the companies also agreed to pay $23.2-million between them to settle class-action cases launched on behalf of chocolate buyers in Canada over the alleged price fixing. As is typical, the companies did not admit to any wrongdoing in the settlements.
The criminal prosecution has been plagued by delays and legal wrangling, including a dispute over documents that Hershey and Cadbury fought to keep sealed. In February, a judge ruled that information handed over by the two companies as they began to co-operate with Competition Bureau investigators could be given to the other defendants in the case.