Money transfer business that was part of exchange rate-fixing cartel fined $1m

An Australian court has fined a money transfer business $1m and imposed jail sentences on members of a cartel that fixed the Australian dollar and Vietnamese dong exchange rate.

It was the first time an Australian court had imposed jail time for such a crime, however federal court judge Wendy Abraham immediately released the four people – Van Ngoc Le, his son, Tony Le, Thi Huong Nguyen and Khai Van Tran – on good behaviour bonds.

Abraham also fined Vina Money Transfer, which was run by Ngoc Le and Tony Le, $1m.

The case revolves around Vina and two of its competitors, Hong Vina Fast Money Transfer and Hai Ha Money Transfer, all of which operated in Sydney and the Melbourne suburb of Footscray, where they had shopfronts within 500 metres of each other.

They were encouraged to collude with each other in fixing the rates they offered by a Vietnamese bank they used to exchange dollars into dong, Sacombank.

In one email sent to Hai Ha in December 2011, a Sacombank employee said they were “frustrated as the EXCHANGE RATE differences among the companies are way too much” and expressed “hope that you all reach a mutual agreement” and offer the same rate.

Ngoc Le and his son, Tony Le, began colluding with Thi Huong Nguyen and Tran’s business, Hong Vina, in 2012, agreeing to set rates and fees they offered through SMS correspondence and meetings in cafes.

Hai Ha’s director, Dianne Phuong Nguyen, also participated in the cartel arrangement but was given immunity from prosecution after agreeing to give evidence for the Crown.

The cartel ran for five years, although at times the businesses failed to successfully coordinate their rates.

In a January 2015 email to Ngoc Le, a Sacombank employee lamented the “big gap” between the rates the businesses were charging.

“Now is also time for the start of the lunar new year period,” the bank employee said.

“I do hope that you all can find a ‘common voice’ in order to bridge the exchange rate gap.

Federal police and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission began a joint investigation into the cartel in 2014 after the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission “lawfully intercepted telecommunications of Thi Huong Nguyen and Khai Tran in relation to an unrelated investigation,” Abraham said in her reasons for judgment, handed down on Thursday.

Police and the ACCC raided the offices of Vina, Hong Vina and Hai Ha, together with the homes of Tran, Thi Huong Nguyen, Ngoc Le, Tony Le and Phuong Dai, in October 2016.

Van Ngoc Le, Tony Le, Thi Huong Nguyen and Tran pleaded guilty to participating in cartel arrangements, as did Vina.

Abraham sentenced Van Ngoc Le to two years and six months jail, Tony Le to nine months jail, Tran to one year and seven months jail and Thi Huong Nguyen to two years and four months jail.

“This was a long-running effective cartel which influenced the market adversely to consumers, and advanced the interests of Vina Money, Ngoc Le and others who were engaged in it,” Abraham said.

She said she had decided to release Van Ngoc Le, Tony Le, Thi Huong Nguyen and Tran immediately because they had good prospects of rehabilitation, although in Van Ngoc Le’s case the decision was “finely balanced”.

A fifth person accused of involvement in the cartel, Jamie Le, has pleaded not guilty and is due to go to trial in late August.

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