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EU fines E.ON €38 mln for tampering

Germany’s E.ON-Energie AG was fined €38 million ($56 million) Wednesday by the European Union for a broken seal across an office door that was affixed during an antitrust investigation.

The European Commission said the broken seal meant E.ON, the electricity unit of the German energy giant, had the chance to remove documents after a May 29, 2006 surprise raid -- although it could not prove that E.ON had deliberately tampered with the seal or removed anything. The fine is on top of penalties E.ON could still face from a probe into market abuse in Germany. “This decision sends a clear message to all companies that it does not pay to obstruct the Commission’s investigations,” said Neelie Kroes, the EU’s antitrust chief. Regulators fixed the seal to the door to make sure none of the highly sensitive documents they wanted to examine could be removed overnight. When regulators returned the next day, the word “Void” appeared along the plastic seal and glue was found around it, indicating that someone had removed the tape and tried to put it back.

E.ON denied breaking the seal, arguing that EU officials had the only office key. The European Commission said it later found there were 20 keys for employees. The company claimed that the seal could have been disturbed by a cleaning product, high humidity, vibrations or that it may have been old and faulty. The EU rejected those theories. “Both the manufacturer of the seal and the independent expert who tested the Commission’s original seals confirmed that the state of the seal as found in the morning of May 30, 2006 cannot be explained by any other reasons than by a breach of the seal,” it said.

It was the first time EU investigators have come across a broken seal during a probe and the first time they have fined a company for it. E.ON, the world’s largest investor-owned utility, reported Q3 profits last month of $1.97 billion. (Businessweek)