Chinese telecom giant ZTE has been fined $1.1bn and will plead guilty to charges that it violated USA rules by shipping US-made equipment to Iran and North Korea. It is the largest criminal fine for the Justice Department in an export control or sanctions case. It has also agreed to pay another $300 million, suspended during a seven-year-period, if it does not meet the terms of the agreement, which includes the appointment of a corporate compliance monitor.
The company will plead guilty to three felonies: violations of export laws, making a material false statement and obstruction of justice.
"ZTE acknowledges the mistakes it made, takes responsibility for them, and remains committed to positive change", company chief Zhao Xianming said in a statement.
According to legal documents, ZTE obtained the banned goods over a six-year period and shipped them to customers in Iran, in the full knowledge that the sales violated U.S. sanctions.
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Between 2010 and 2016, according to the treasury statement, the Chinese group's "highest-level management developed, approved and implemented a company-wide plan that utilised third-party companies to hide and facilitate ZTE's illegal business with Iran".
A five-year investigation found ZTE conspired to evade USA embargoes by buying US components, incorporating them into ZTE equipment and illegally shipping them to Iran.
"We are putting the world on notice: the games are over", Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement.
"ZTE Corporation not only violated export controls that keep sensitive American technology out of the hands of hostile regimes like Iran's - they lied to federal investigators and even deceived their own counsel and internal investigators about their illegal acts", Sessions said at a press conference. ZTE has also agreed to ongoing, routine monitoring and auditing, and will remain on a list of companies USA suppliers are forbidden from doing business with without government approval.
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The company also took actions involving 283 shipments of controlled items to North Korea, authorities said.
"Despite ZTE's repeated attempts to thwart the investigation, the dogged determination of investigators uncovered damning evidence", said Douglas Hassebrock, director of the Commerce Department office that led the investigation. "Instituting new compliance-focused procedures and making significant personnel changes has been a top priority for the company".
Three senior officials including Zhao's predecessor had stepped down in early April 2016 after the United States government first sanctioned ZTE in the case.
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