SAO PAULO, Aug 25 (Reuters) - Brazil's antitrust agency has opened an inquiry into 11 companies for allegedly colluding to fix prices of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and divvying up customers in northeastern states, in the latest probe into suspected anticompetitive behavior.
In a statement, Brasilia-based government watchdog Cade said companies exchanged information and imposed restrictions on resellers in order to "promote an artificial regulation of the market and to facilitate the functioning of alleged cartels." The agency did not estimate how much consumers lost from the scheme.
Some of the firms under investigation include Liquigás Distribuidora SA, a unit of state-controlled oil company Petróleo Brasileiro SA, or Petrobras, and Cia Ultragaz SA, a subsidiary of Ultrapar Participações SA, Cade said. Tetrobras kicked off an auction process to sell Liquigás in June.
The probe is the latest in a drive against corrupt corporate practices in Brazil, where a bribe-for-contracts scandal between state firms and engineering groups has helped accelerate the impeachment trial of President Dilma Rousseff.
Suspicions of a so-called cartel in the LPG market first rose in 2009 when oil industry watchdog ANP filed a complaint, followed by a series of police and prosecutor investigations, the statement said. Searches and raids also took place a year later as part of a similar probe into anticompetitive prices.
Subsequently, gas distributors GLP Minasgás SA Indústria & Comércio and Supergasbras Energia Ltda, which are also part of the ongoing Cade probe, as well as some executives sought to negotiate plea deals. Cade did not disclose the terms of the accords.
Representatives of Liquigás, Ultragaz, Minasgás and Supergasbras did not have an immediate comment.
On Aug. 8, officials recommended that Cade's board impose sanctions on Petrobras for alleged anticompetitive behavior in the natural gas distribution market. A timetable for a ruling on the Petrobras case is yet to be determined. (Reporting by Ana Mano; Editing by Guillermo Parra-Bernal and Jeffrey Benkoe)