Roberto Dip, via Facebook

Roberto Dip, via Facebook

The president of a Honduran soccer club whose business has offices in New Orleans will plead guilty to charges that he illegally plotted to hike the cost of shipping cargo from the United States to various places, including Honduras.

Court records show Roberto Dip and one of his employees, Jason Handal, intend to admit the misdeeds spelled out in a four-page bill of information that prosecutors filed against the pair last month.

According to the records, Dip and Handal will resolve their case in the federal courthouse in Miami, where they were initially arrested June 29 on accusations of breaking antitrust laws, rather than in New Orleans, where the court documents were filed.

It is unclear what kind of punishment the two may face. They could have faced up to 10 years in prison as well as fines of $1 million each if they had been convicted at a trial. But defendants typically receive punishments that are well under the maximum if they plead guilty, especially in antitrust cases. 

Attorney Joel Denaro, who along with Bill Barzee represents Dip and Handal, said Thursday, “These are hardworking family men who were just trying to keep their business afloat. In the process, they made mistakes which they admit.” 

At the time of his arrest, Dip was a city councilman in La Ceiba, Honduras. He was also the president of a La Ceiba-based team competing in Honduras’ first-division pro soccer league, Club Deportivo y Social Vida. A website about the club once listed Dip's shipping company as its owner. 

According to the feds, Dip and heads of other organizations gathered in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in March 2014 to hammer out an agreement to raise the prices their companies charged U.S.-based customers to ship cargo.

The American government considers such deals as bad for consumers, and they are prohibited by federal law.

Nonetheless, the feds alleged that Dip, Handal and others sent follow-up emails proving they implemented the agreement, with one communiqué urging the companies to end the “unjustified price wars” among them.

Dip was accused of writing an email that explicitly described the pact as illicit and instructed employees such as Handal to be careful not to leave evidence behind.

“Anti-trust laws … penalize businesses that collude to fix prices of a product or service,” said that email, which was among others seized by investigators. “So nothing appears in writing.”

One email that implicated Handal suggested the deal remained in place through at least March 2015. In that message, Handal wrote that prices established a year beforehand were still in effect, preserving “the same level of competition.”

Audio recordings, in addition to the emails, eventually ended up in the hands of a New Orleans-based FBI agent. That agent obtained a warrant to arrest both Dip and Handal as part of a wider probe into “collusive” agreements involving companies responsible for Honduras-U.S. cargo shipments, though complete details haven’t been released.

Aside from its local offices, Dip’s freight shipping company also had branches in Baton Rouge and Miami. It developed a reputation as reliable and at one point earned praise from the federal government. A 2013 letter from U.S. Customs and Border Protection lauded Dip’s company for using its X-ray equipment to help authorities confiscate guns and ammunition.

But, in a statement issued on his behalf after his arrest, Dip explained that operational costs in Honduras had skyrocketed, leading to the 2014 meeting. He added that an unspecified business rival had reported the meeting to the U.S. government in “bad faith” in hopes of destroying Dip’s company.

Denaro on Thursday said Dip and his company looked forward “to getting this behind them and, at the same time, (continuing) to serve their customers.”  

Dip’s soccer team appeared to have been in financial straits before his arrest. He had said he was worried about being able to pay his players’ salaries and had even wondered publicly whether the local and national governments might help him out.

After Dip’s downfall, Vida’s results on the field have been poor.

The club as of Thursday was in third-to-last place, having won only three of its 17 matches this season. 

Perhaps anticipating tough times, on the same day of Dip’s arrest, Vida proposed to suspend a rule requiring the Honduran league’s worst-performing team to be demoted to the second division. The proposal failed.

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.

(504) 636-7433