Firm is accused of price rigging

Federal regulators accused a Dutch trading firm, its chief executive and two other top employees Thursday of manipulating energy futures contracts on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission alleged Optiver Holding BV attempted to manipulate light sweet crude oil, New York Harbor heating oil and New York Harbor gasoline futures contracts during March 2007.

The defendants tried to manipulate prices 19 times and succeeded in causing artificial prices five times, earning about $1 million in profit, according to a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in New York.

Regulators asked a judge to impose monetary penalties, restitution and other restrictions. A telephone message seeking comment was left at the company's Chicago office.

The complaint was filed just days after Congress began acting on legislation that would require the CFTC to set limits on trading in oil markets by investors and speculators.

The futures contracts at issue are governed by “trading at settlement” guidelines. Parties agree at the start of such a contract the price will be the day's settlement price plus or minus an agreed-to differential.

A trader can profit by buying or selling such contracts and making money on the price difference, the commission said.

Optiver executives were accused of accumulating a large position in such contracts and trading them in the opposite direction just before or during the closing bell “to improperly influence and affect the price of futures contracts in a desired direction,” the complaint said.