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In the largest fine ever obtained by San Francisco antitrust prosecutors, a Korean company has agreed to plead guilty and pay $185 million for its role in a conspiracy to drive up the price of computer chips. Hynix Semiconductor Inc. manufactures dynamic random access memory (DRAM), which is used in everything from desktop computers to mp3 players to digital cameras. Hynix has a subsidiary in San Jose. It’s the third-largest fine of its kind in the United States, and it could be just a preview of even bigger penalties. The far-reaching computer chip investigation, which alleges wrongdoing from 1999 through 2002, affects thousands of consumers. “This case shows that high-tech price-fixing cartels will not be tolerated,” Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said in a statement. Last year, nearly $8 billion worth of DRAM was sold in the United States. Customers touched by Hynix’s illegal activities include Dell Inc., Compaq Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Company, Apple Computer Inc., International Business Machines Corp. and Gateway Inc., according to the Justice Department. Hynix is the second DRAM manufacturer to cop a plea. Last year, Germany’s Infineon Technologies AG also pleaded out and agreed to pay a $160 million fine. Both are required to cooperate in an ongoing inquiry that is a textbook example of the Justice Department’s corporate amnesty program. The case began when Micron Technology Inc. notified the government of the price-fixing scheme in exchange for immunity. Normally, the first company in the door remains a secret, but Micron, the only U.S. DRAM manufacturer implicated so far, confirmed its role last fall after media reports. Infineon pleaded out in the fall and four of its vice presidents agreed to spend time in prison and pay additional fines. A Micron executive was also convicted of obstruction of justice and sentenced to home detention. Plaintiff attorneys also have filed a series of class actions in state and federal court against Micron, Infineon, Hynix and a handful of other DRAM manufacturers, including Samsung Electronics Co. and NEC Electronics America Inc. Although the Justice Department would not detail the next step in its investigation, Phillip Warren, chief of antitrust enforcement in San Francisco, pointed out that several Hynix executives are not covered by the plea agreement announced Thursday. Hynix declined to comment. The company’s attorney in the matter, O’Melveny & Myers partner Michael Tubach, could not be reached.

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