Renewed Vigilance Regarding Civil Enforcement; Continued Consolidation, Integration and Acceptance of Structural Changes at Criminal Program; Higher Morale
Baer’s Confirmation is unlikely to change momentum, policies or priorities.
As the Obama Administration prepares for a second term, Bill Baer has been confirmed as Assistant Attorney General. The Antitrust Division’s informal profile photo of Baer captures his genuine humility and good will that many Antitrust Division attorneys will immediately recognize from numerous interactions with him when he represented clients as a partner at Arnold & Porter. Baer’s easygoing nature is no contrivance and he will build on this long track record of good relations with many of the attorneys and mid-level managers at the Antitrust Division. In addition to the normal productivity enhancements associated with having confirmed leadership at the helm, Baer’s tenure at the FTC suggests that he will implement an effective management style and push more expansive enforcement goals. We also believe that Baer’s confirmation will improve morale (discussed more fully below) and Baer will quickly calm the ripples caused by programmatic changes that resulted in field office closure and attrition of seasoned prosecutors in the criminal program.
Continued Civil Enforcement Vigilance
In its first term, the Obama Administration took some modest steps toward its goal of revitalizing civil enforcement. The Division repudiated the Bush administration’s monopolization guidelines and expressed a greater willingness to challenge unilateral conduct and exclusionary business arrangements, although it only brought one monopolization case. That the Obama administration managed a slight increase in second requests is significant since it occurred in the midst of significantly dampened merger activity caused by the financial crisis. Perhaps the most telling metric was discovered by the Stanford Law Review (SLR Online, 65 STAN. L. REV. ONLINE 13, July 18, 2012):
“[t]he Bush Administration conducted 0.04 investigations per Hart-Scott filing; Obama conducted 0.05 investigations per filing. The Bush Administration made 0.013 second requests for information per Hart-Scott filing; Obama’s made 0.020—a 50% increase on a per capita basis.
Combine this 50% increase with a few more high profile enforcement actions that included AT&T/T-Mobile, H&R Block/TaxAct, NASDAQ/NYSE, and BCBS/Physicians Health, and the Obama administration can make a plausible case that it has already reinvigorated enforcement. During his Senate confirmation hearings in July, Baer told lawmakers that he supported Congressional action to repeal the Supreme Court’s Leegin decision which imposed rule of reason analysis for resale price maintenance where per se analysis, albeit with loopholes, had sufficed in the past.
This was music to Democratic ears in the Senate that clearly prefer more aggressive enforcement. Senator Herb Kohl, D-Wis had expressed concerns back in July regarding Google potentially using its market power in search engine technology to favor its products and services. Baer did not answer Kohl’s question as to Google, but he did share his enforcement philosophy generally: “being vigilant whether its Microsoft or Alcoa Aluminum about firms that are successful, and we don’t want to penalize success but to make sure it’s not improperly translated into unfair advantage in other markets, is really a key part of what antitrust is all about.” This comment suggests a revival of monopoly leveraging, always a favorite of Democrat administrations even if the courts have been less receptive.
Will Baer lead the Division on a path to reinvigoration? He may have provided an answer last week when he came out of the box swinging against the merger between Bazaarvoice and Powerreviews Inc. (involving online customer reviews for retailers) and Oklahoma Chiropractors (which challenged joint contracting agreements with insurers). Of these first two significant actions of Baer’s tenure, Bazaarvoice is the one that is suggestive of reinvigoration and expansion. The customer reviews market is evolving at rocket speed, there are challenges for the government regarding market definition and it is unclear that the barriers to entry can be all that high, particularly when well-funded behemoths like Google and Facebook seem to have position for market entry. Notably, the company was vocal in its frustration about the “six months” it spent in negotiations with the Antitrust Division, suggesting that it could have announced this challenge prior to Baer taking the helm. The fact that Baer announced it after he assumed his duties suggests that he sees a strong case. Certainly it would not have escaped Baer’s attention that a decision like this would allow many to interpret this is a bullish signal that Baer plans to reinvigorate, revitalize and expand the Antitrust Division’s mission regarding civil enforcement.
At the FTC, Chairman Leibowitz, a Democrat, has served as an FTC commissioner for eight years and as chairman for almost four years. As rumors circulate regarding his likely departure, President Obama must consider potential replacements. The president could appoint a new chairman from the sitting Democratic commissioners, or he could choose someone from outside the agency. The president recently nominated Joshua Wright, a Republican, to replace outgoing Republican commissioner J. Thomas Rosch, whose term expired in September. Commissioner Rosch has indicated that he will stay in his position until the Senate confirms Wright. Although no more than three of the FTC’s five commissioners, who each serve seven-year terms, can be of the same political party, President Obama’s reelection ensures a Democratic majority at the FTC. Three of the five FTC commissioners will continue to be Democrats, and the chairman, who appoints the directors of the Bureaus of Competition and Consumer Protection, will also be a Democrat. Accordingly, there is little reason to expect a new direction in antitrust enforcement priorities.
Continued Consolidation and Integration of Structural Changes at Criminal Program
In the first Obama term, cartel enforcement was the Division’s top criminal priority to the exclusion of things like procurement fraud. Almost certainly, these headwinds still exist, but time will tell whether Baer can be successful at reducing impediments to opening investigations that do not present themselves on first impression as Section 1 conduct. Although people can argue over the causes, the Antitrust Division grand jury investigations plummeted from over 150 to fewer than 60 overall and new openings fell from 66 to 29. Most of this came at the expense of Department’s procurement fraud program and overall anti-competitive deterrence in the area of government procurements has been grievously affected as a result.
On paper, cartel enforcement was little changed from the Bush years, although some of the Division’s numbers were marginally inflated by splitting criminal information’s in non-traditional ways and there is a widespread concern that the pipeline of “small” or “bread and butter” investigations is dry. Airline Shipping and Auto Parts are behemoth investigations that generate a wealth of statistics, but there are 90 fewer industries that are the subject of grand jury investigations and it is impossible to measure deterrence that is not happening.
In procurement fraud, the Bush administration gave the Antitrust Division a long leash and authorized its use of resources in most allegations that affected the pre-award contract process. As the Obama Administration strained its resources to support invigorated civil enforcement and it pushed investigative resources toward financial crimes, the administration implemented a series of policy changes that significantly reduced Antitrust Division criminal investigations. First, it was made much more difficult for attorneys to open grand jury investigations involving matters that did not present themselves on first impression as suspected antitrust conspiracies. Since very few antitrust criminal cases ever “present” as fully-fledged antitrust conspiracies (i.e.. evident participation by more than one competitor), investigation requests plummeted. This effect was particularly pronounced in procurement because so few government contracts are awarded through an invitation for bid (”IFB”) process and more are awarded sole source, best value and through a request for proposal procedure where price is not the only factor. These contracting schemes make it difficult, if not impossible as a matter of law, to use the Sherman Act to prosecute schemes affecting contracts that were not awarded through an IFB process.
Second, the Antitrust Division implemented a new, computerized tracking system that made it harder to keep open investigations that were not being actively investigated. Because grand jury authority is held at the AAG level in contrast to the Criminal Division (delegated to the DAAG) and the United States Attorneys’ Offices (delegated to line assistants), getting grand jury investigations opened takes the Antitrust Division greater resources than other components. Line attorneys refer to this process with dread as “the investigation to get grand jury investigative authority.” Because the Antitrust Division has to invest greater resources into securing grants of grand jury authority and because this authority requires higher levels of approval, it is relatively unusual to reopen a grand jury investigation after closure. In the past, keeping investigations “on the books” might allow a staff to focus on another industry or to offer help to another investigative staff on an investigation that had “gone hot.” It also might allow another contract to be awarded or another coordinated price increase to be implemented that might significantly further the investigation. For these and other reasons, putting open cases on the back burner became verboten and if investigations did not hit success early on they got closed. The new case matter tracking system often pushes staffs to make tactical decisions that would be better made later after the emergence of new leads, information or evidence. Ironically, in some respects, the Antitrust Division now pursues an operations policy that reminds line attorneys of some partner investigative agencies who years ago would have to close investigations and then struggle to reopen them if a staff determined that a three month delay was advisable. Because case filings (i.e. stats) are the paramount metric, this provides disincentives to working any case that is at all considered “marginal” and the Division’s deterrence footprint has shrunk.
Third, by January 30, 2013, the Division will have closed four of its seven field offices, a move that has adversely impacted morale. Although this was sold as a serious consolidation plan for which many employees would avail themselves and relocate to Washington D.C. or the remaining field offices (San Francisco, New York, and Chicago), this does not seem to be happening in any great numbers. Using the Philadelphia and Cleveland Field Offices as examples, we count a total of three attorneys who will be staying with the Division.
Baer’s mission is not an easy one. He joins the Antitrust Division just prior to the formal shut down of four offices and significant attrition; he joins an Antitrust Division that has fewer raw materials in the investigations pipeline. Still we have caucused Antitrust Division attorneys who are staying with the agency and there is reason for optimism. As word filters back that Antitrust Division attorneys who severed or retired were dealt with fairly and considerately, active concerns will dissipate and we believe Baer can drive a newly structured criminal program to fire on all cylinders by the end of this fiscal year. There could be reinvigorated activity as a rumored new section formed in Washington D.C. (staffed by detailees and transferring attorneys) and offices in San Francisco, Chicago (currently slated for one additional expat prosecutor) and New York receive transferring prosecutors and lateral hires to stem attrition, and we expect to see vibrant competition by attorneys for investigations. Most notably, the rumored new section in Washington D.C., that will be comprised of expats from some of the closed field offices, will see the National Criminal Enforcement Section (NCES) as its main competition and we expect fierce competition to develop creative strategies for generating new cases.