A business unit of Whirlpool Corporation has signed a plea agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to settle accusations that the company conspired to fix prices on compressors that are used in refrigerators and freezers.

Embraco North America, the Whirlpool business unit headquartered in Brazil, with offices in Suwanee, Ga., will pay $91.8 million in six annual installments for its role in what the government characterizes as an international price-fixing scheme. The plea is subject to court approval, and the first payment would be made in the fourth quarter of 2010. Osaka, Japan-based Panasonic, which makes the compressors, signed a separate plea agreement on September 30, in which it agreed to pay $49.1 million in criminal fines.

The penalties could have been a lot worse. Panasonic’s plea agreement, filed with the federal court in Detroit, states that the maximum sentence the government could have imposed included $100 million in fines, plus two times the company’s gross pecuniary gain during the period the conspiracy took place, two times the pecuniary loss of the victims, and a probationary period of one to five years.

The Justice Department opened its antitrust investigation of the global compressor industry in February 2009. Law enforcement authorities in Europe and Brazil raided the offices of a number of compressor producers (their names were not released), and Justice subsequently accused Panasonic and Embraco of “conspiracy to suppress and eliminate competition by fixing prices of household compressors sold in the U.S. and elsewhere” between October 14, 2004 and December 31, 2007. In Panasonic’s plea agreement, the government states that Panasonic sold at least $261 million worth of compressors in the U.S. alone during that period.

Prior to this plea agreement, Whirlpool, which is based in Benton Harbor, Mich., had been riding a wave of positive publicity after it had signed exclusive national appliance supply agreements with PulteGroup and Mattamy Homes.

In response to Embraco’s plea, Whirlpool on Monday announced that it would record the fine in its third quarter, and lowered its earnings projections for that quarter to between $7.80 and $8.30 per share, compared to its previous outlook of between $9 and $9.50 per share.

John Caulfield is senior editor for BUILDER magazine.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Detroit, MI.