CCC’s: Was Heir Locators Indictment a Hair Too Late?

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Below is a post that I wrote with a friend and former Antitrust Division colleague, Karen Sharp.  The post originally appeared in Law 360 Competition (here). I am reposting for those that don’t have access to the article.

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Was Heir Locators Indictment a Hair Too Late?

by Robert Connolly and Karen Sharp[1]

            On August 17, 2016, a Utah grand jury returned a one count Sherman Act indictment against Kemp & Associates, Inc. and Daniel J. Mannix,[2] a Kemp corporate officer.  According to the indictment, the conspiracy was an agreement to “allocate customers of Heir Location Services sold in the United States” that began as early as September 1999 and continued as late as January 29, 2014.

Heir location service companies identify heirs to estates of intestate decedents and, in exchange for a contingency fee, develop evidence and prove heirs’ claims to an inheritance in probate court.  The indictment charged that there was an allocation scheme whereby the defendants agreed with a competing heir location service company that the first company to contact an heir would be allocated certain remaining heirs to the estate and, in return, would pay the other company a portion of the collusive contingency fees collected from the heirs.

In pretrial orders issued last August, U.S. District Court Judge David Sam, 1) dismissed the indictment as time barred by the five-year statute of limitations; and 2) held that if there were a trial, the agreement would not be considered per se, but instead judged by the jury under the Rule of Reason.  The Antitrust Division is challenging both rulings on appeal in the Tenth Circuit.  In this article we discuss the court’s ruling that the indictment was time barred by the statute of limitations.

A full exposition of the facts can be found in the indictment,[3] Judge Sam’s Memorandum Decision and Order[4], the government’s opening brief in the Tenth Circuit,[5] and the defendants’ response.[6]  But in short, the relevant facts are these:

  • There was a written allocation agreement between competing heir location service companies to divide certain customers.
  • On July 30, 2008, defendant Mannix wrote to Kemp & Associates colleagues in an email: “The ‘formal’ agreement that we have had with [Blake & Blake] for the last decade is over.”
  • There were in fact no other heirs allocated after July 30, 2008.
  • Payments made by previously allocated customers, however, occurred within the Sherman Act five-year statute of limitations period preceding the indictment.

The government argues on appeal that the conspiracy did not end on July 30, 2008 when the agreement was abandoned but continued based on the “payments theory.” The payments theory is straightforward: conspirators rig bids, fix prices and/or allocate customers to reap the higher prices that come from eliminating/restraining competition.  As long as a conspirator is being paid as a result of the illegal agreement, the conspiracy continues.

The government has the weight of authority and specifically, Tenth Circuit precedent, on its side.  The government argues on appeal that Judge Sam “mistakenly concluded that the alleged conspiracy ended after the last customers were allocated, rather than continuing as long as the conspirators collected and distributed payments from the contracts with the allocated customers.”  The indictment specifically alleged that as part of the customer allocation conspiracy, the defendants “accepted payment for Heir Location Services sold to heirs in the United States at collusive and noncompetitive contingency fee rates.”  The indictment alleges that the conspiracy continued at least as late as January 29, 2014, which is the date when, according to the defendants’ motion to dismiss the indictment, “a large team of law enforcement agents and prosecutors served subpoenas on, and sought to interview, many of the Company’s employees.”

The payments theory is well accepted, including in the Tenth Circuit.  United States v. Evans & Associates Construction Co.[7] was a bid-rigging case where the contract was rigged outside the statute of limitations, but the defendant received payments for the work done on the contract within the statute period.  The Tenth Circuit in Evans concluded that “the statute did not begin to run until after the successful contractor accepted the last payment on the contract.”[8] According to the court, “the Sherman Act violation was ‘accomplished both by the submission of noncompetitive bids and by the request for and receipt of payments at anti-competitive levels.’”[9] Similarly, in the more recent case of United States v. Morgan, the Tenth Circuit held that “the distribution of the proceeds of a conspiracy is an act occurring during the pendency of the conspiracy.”[10]

Judge Sam did not agree that the indictment before him alleged a conspiracy that would properly invoke the payments theory.  He concluded that the primary purpose of the anticompetitive agreement was the allocation of customers.  According to Judge Sam, “[i]t then follows that any conspiratorial agreement ceased to exist once the allocation of customers through the [agreed-upon] Guidelines ceased.”  Judge Sam distinguished the heir locators’ agreement from the bid-rigging agreement in Evans, stating, “[T]he evidence in Evans and Morgan shows that the central purpose of the conspiracy was to obtain wrongful proceeds or money.  While the Indictment here mentions the payment of proceeds, Ind. ¶¶ 11 (h), (i), the central purpose of the conspiracy charged was not ‘economic enrichment.’” Judge Sam found, without even a hearing or trial, that the “central purpose” of the heir locators’ allocation agreement was not “economic enrichment.”  The statute of limitations, therefore, expired on July 30, 2013, five years after defendant Mannix sent an internal Kemp & Associates email abandoning the allocation agreement.

In our opinion the judge was grasping at straws to distinguish (and extinguish) this case from Evans to avoid application of the payments theory.  Payments by allocated heir locator customers seem like payments made on rigged contracts.  Since the judge also found this to be a Rule of Reason case, he apparently felt that the agreement on balance was procompetitive–and not designed to generate supra competitive profits.  The court’s logic seems to be a real-life application of the “bad facts make bad law” principle.  But, there was simply no record on which to base a finding that the payments made and accepted by defendants and their co-conspirators within the statute were merely administrative tasks that “bore no relation to customer allocation.”

A Better Way to Judge The Validity of Using a Payments Theory To Extend the Statute

  1. The Judicial Concern with Prosecutorial Delay

            Judge Sam was clearly troubled by the fact that the defendants were indicted in August 2016, several years after the five-year statute of limitations would have appeared to have run on an agreement that was abandoned in July 2008.  Moreover, since there was no fixed time when an estate distribution would be finalized, there was no telling when the statute of limitations would begin to run in this type of case. The court noted:

“Additionally, the government has identified 269 allegedly affected estates, the administration of which consisted of a series of ordinary, non-criminal events that could last many years. In contrast, Evans involved the bid for one contract which was bid, granted, completed and fully paid within the two years. [citation omitted] . . .. This arbitrariness is not consistent with the very reasons limitations periods exist in criminal cases.”

In bid-rigging cases, the outer limits of the statute of limitations is at least defined by the length of the contract.  But here, as the court noted, the payments theory could extend the statute of limitations for an unknown, and possibly very long time.

2.    The “Payments Theory” as a Due Process Violation

A more direct and fair method to address the concern that Judge Sam and other courts may have with an indefinite extension of a statute of limitations is to consider the application of the payments theory as a possible violation of due process.  Does extending the statute of limitations for an indefinite and arbitrary period deprive the defendants of due process?

The Supreme Court has recognized that prosecutorial delay may constitute a due process violation but has set an extremely high bar for a would-be successful defendant.  In United States v. Marion,[11] the Court held that in order for the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to require dismissal of an indictment the defendant must show that the pre-indictment delay:

1)         caused substantial prejudice to the defendant’s rights to a fair trial; and

2)         that the delay was an intentional device to gain tactical advantage over the accused.[12]

There is a critical difference, however, between the facts in Marion and the heir location services case.  In Marion there was a three-year delay between the commission of the crime and the charged case.  The defendants alleged this delay was a prejudicial due process violation.  But, the case was still brought within the statute of limitations.  However, where, as here, the application of a payments theory leads to an arbitrary and indefinite extension of the statutorily set limitations period, Marion can be distinguished.  We suggest it would be appropriate to apply a different/lesser test in this case.  The near-impossible-to-meet prong of showing that the prosecution intentionally engaged in delay tactics to gain an advantage should be dropped.  Instead, the defendants should be required to make the Marion showing of substantial prejudice suffered by the application of the payments theory. A showing of substantial prejudice would require for example a witness’ death or illness, loss of physical evidence, or a witness who was once available is now not available; i.e., something more than a general allegation that memories fade with time.

Another aspect of due process that can arise in payments theory cases, and may be what really troubles courts, is that an individual who is the subject or target of a criminal antitrust investigation is often without a job and can find it difficult to get one while possible legal charges hang over his or her head.  A company may also suffer negative financial consequences while a “cloud of suspicion” from a grand jury investigation lingers.  Being a subject/target of an antitrust criminal investigation is an incredibly stressful and expensive ordeal.  If this status is going to continue, perhaps indefinitely, past the traditional statute of limitations, there should be a very good reason.  Depending on the circumstance, a judge, like Judge Sam, may find that the delay in bringing a case was a due process violation of the defendants’ property rights—the right to earn a living.

We also suggest, however, that if the defendant can make a showing of substantial prejudice, the government should have the opportunity to explain why there was a need to resort to a payments theory. Was the crime or industry investigated very complex?  Did the subjects themselves stonewall the investigation and cause delays?  Did the defendants successfully conceal the conspiracy until very near the typical running of the statute?  If the government has a satisfactory explanation of why it has resorted to the payments theory, and especially if the defendant’s conduct during the investigation contributed to the delay, then the court should find no due process violation.

The due process analysis we are suggesting is, of course, a deviation from the two-step test the Supreme Court established in Marion, but it is based on a valid distinction from Marion—but for the payments theory, the heir locators’ indictment is barred.  A balancing of the prejudice to the defendant versus the government’s need to use the payments theory, is a more appropriate way for a court to decide whether a case is time-barred than by finding that the ultimate goal of a customer allocation scheme was not economic enrichment.

Some Thoughts on the Case as Former Prosecutors

            Another benefit of a due process analysis is that it would help explain why the government brought a case that is facially so far out of the statute of limitations.  One might conclude, and perhaps Judge Sam did, that the government was simply negligent, and the defendants should not bear the cost of that negligence. After all, the allocation agreement itself was in the form of written “Guidelines,” and the directive ending the “formal” agreement was in a July 2008 email.  The defendants further allege that two disgruntled former Kemp & Associates employees (and potential witnesses) first approached the Antitrust Division in 2008 or 2009.  By all appearances, this seems like a relatively easy conspiracy to “uncover” and prove, so why did the Antitrust Division wait until it had to rely on a payments theory to bring an indictment?

As former prosecutors we can speculate—and it is just speculation– as to why the case was brought using a payments theory to extend the statute.  One possibility that comes to mind is that the government believes that the conspiracy was not abandoned in July 2008.  Perhaps the government has evidence that additional customers were allocated after July 2008 and that the conspiracy in fact continued until the date the defendants received the subpoenas.  Was the Mannix email withdrawing from the conspiracy just a cover and the allocation actually continued “underground?” The government may simply have found it expedient to go with the payments theory rather than disprove the withdrawal email beyond a reasonable doubt.  This, of course, is just speculation–there may be other valid reasons why a payments theory was necessary.  But, often the public facts do not tell the entire story. The Antitrust Division brought a case that appeared to be a straightforward per se customer allocation agreement and used the well accepted payments theory to bring the case within the statute of limitations.  Without a trial or a record of any sort, there is no way to tell whether this was a sound exercise of prosecutorial discretion or not.[13]

The Tenth Circuit may reverse Judge Sam on the statute of limitations issue, in which case the rule of reason versus per se issue will take center stage. Or the appeals court may agree with Judge Sam and limit the payments theory to situations, like Evans, where there is a fixed contract performance time that limits the payments theory extension of the statute of limitations.  But, even in this situation, contracts typically have delays, so the idea of a “fixed contract time” may be somewhat illusory.  While it is not the law currently, our suggestion is that rather than have courts chip away at the legally sound payments theory based on dubious distinctions, defendants should challenge, and courts should assess the fairness of, the government’s use of the payments theory on the basis of due process; i.e., balancing the harm to the defendants against the justification offered by the government for relying on this theory to extend the statute.

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[1] Bob Connolly is a partner with GeyerGorey LLP.  He is the former chief of the Antitrust Division’s Philadelphia Field Office and served for 34 years in the Antitrust Division. He publishes a blog, Cartel Capers.

Karen Sharp is a former trial attorney with the DOJ Antitrust Division, where she investigated and prosecuted national and international antitrust matters for 25 years. She also served as a special assistant United States attorney in the Eastern District of California. Most recently she was counsel for Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in San Francisco.  Ms. Sharp can be reached at Sharpkj100@gmail.com.

[2] United States v. Kemp & Associates, Inc., et al., No. 2:16-cr-00403 (D. Utah Aug. 17, 2016) (David Sam J.)16-

[3]   The indictment can be found on the Antitrust Division’s website at https://www.justice.gov/atr/file/887761/download.

[4]  Judge Sam’s memorandum opinion is linked at Law 360, Aug. 29, 2017, Antitrust Charges Against Heir-Tracker Co. Dismissed, available at https://www.law360.com/articles/958574/doj-antitrust-charges-against-heir-tracker-co-dismissed. It can also be found here JudgeSamSOLOrderandMemorandum.

[5]   Opening Brief for the United States, (corrected) (filed January 3, 2018), available at https://www.justice.gov/atr/case-document/file/1020466/download.

[6]  The defendants’ brief is linked at Law 360, February 5, 2018, Heir-Tracking Firm Urges 10th Circ. to Refuse Antitrust Case, available at https://www.law360.com/competition/articles/1009042/heir-tracking-co-urges-10th-circ-to-refuse-antitrust-case.  It can also be found here defendants’ kemp-brief.

[7]   United States v. Evans & Associates Construction Co., 839 F.2d 656 (10th Cir. 1988).

[8]   Id. at 661.

[9]   Id. (quoting United States v. Northern Improvement Co., 814 F.2d 540 (8th Cir. 1987)).

[10]  United States v. Morgan, 748 F.3d 1024, 1036-37 (10th Cir. 2014).

[11]  United States v. Marion, 404 U.S. 307 (1971).

[12]  Id. at 324.

[13] The Antitrust Division already had a significant setback on the “payments theory” in United States v. Grimm, 738 F.3d 498 (2d Cir. 2013), a case where the jury returned guilty verdicts for fixing of municipal bonds.  The last bond fixed was outside the five-year statute of limitations, but payments on the fixed bonds could extend over the life of the bonds—up to thirty years.  The Second Circuit could not accept this extreme extension of the statute of limitations and reversed the convictions ruling that a “[criminal] conspiracy ends notwithstanding the [later] receipt of anticipated profits where the payoff merely consists of a lengthy, indefinite series of ordinary, typically noncriminal, unilateral actions.” Id. at 502 (quotation marks, ellipses, and brackets omitted).

The 3C’s: Antitrust Division to Hold Roundtable on Criminal Antitrust Compliance

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From the Press Release (here):

On April 9, the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division will hold a public roundtable discussion to explore the issue of corporate antitrust compliance and its implications for criminal antitrust enforcement policy.

The roundtable will provide a forum for the Antitrust Division to engage with inside and outside corporate counsel, foreign antitrust enforcers, international organization representatives, and other interested parties on the topic of antitrust compliance.  Participants will discuss the role that antitrust compliance programs play in preventing and detecting antitrust violations, and ways to further promote corporate antitrust compliance.  The format of the program will be a series of panel discussions with featured speakers.  Audience participation in the discussions will be encouraged.

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Michigan Doctor and Owner of Medical Billing Company Sentenced to 15 Years in Prison for $26 Million Health Care Fraud Scheme

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A Detroit-area doctor was sentenced to 180 months in prison today for his role in a $26 million health care fraud scheme that involved billing Medicare for nerve block injections that were never provided and efforts to circumvent Medicare’s investigation of the fraudulent scheme.  A co-conspirator who owned a medical billing company was previously sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Blanco of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, Acting U.S. Attorney Daniel L. Lemisch of the Eastern District of Michigan, Special Agent in Charge David P. Gelios of the FBI’s Detroit Division, Special Agent in Charge Lamont Pugh III of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General’s (HHS-OIG) Chicago Regional Office and Special Agent in Charge Manny Muriel of Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation (IRS-CI) made the announcement.

Johnny Trotter M.D., 42, of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, was sentenced today by U.S. District Judge George C. Steeh of the Eastern District of Michigan.  The owner of the medical billing company, Elaine Lovett, 61, of Detroit, was sentenced by Judge Steeh on Sept. 26.  Judge Steeh also ordered each defendant to pay $9,199,946 in restitution and scheduled a hearing tomorrow on forfeiture.  Trotter and Lovett were convicted in April 2017 after a four-week jury trial of one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud and wire fraud, and three counts of health care fraud.  Trotter was remanded to custody pending a detention hearing tomorrow.

According to the evidence presented at trial, from May 2008 until May 2014, Trotter and Lovett knowingly submitted fraudulent bills for services that they knew had not been provided, mainly nerve block injections.  Additionally, after Medicare imposed a requirement in 2009 that required Trotter’s claims to undergo a medical review prior to payment, Trotter and Lovett conspired to circumvent Medicare’s fraud investigation of Trotter by creating sham medical practices, the evidence showed.  To continue to receive payment for services that were not provided, Trotter and Lovett concealed their involvement with these practices from Medicare, and instead recruited their family members and employees to serve as straw owners of the companies, the evidence further showed.

The FBI, HHS-OIG and IRS-CI investigated the case, which was brought as part of the Medicare Fraud Strike Force under the supervision of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan.  Fraud Section Assistant Chiefs Malisa Dubal and Allan Medina, as well as Trial Attorneys Tom Tynan and Jacob Foster, prosecuted the case.

The Fraud Section leads the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, which is part of a joint initiative between the Department of Justice and HHS to focus their efforts to prevent and deter fraud and enforce current anti-fraud laws around the country.  The Medicare Fraud Strike Force operates in nine locations nationwide.  Since its inception in March 2007, the Medicare Fraud Strike Force has charged over 3,500 defendants who collectively have falsely billed the Medicare program for over $12.5 billion.

CCC’s: Top Comments on Antitrust Whistleblower Posts

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I’ve received several comments on the idea of an Antitrust Whistleblower Statute.  Some of the top comments are:

  1.    Didn’t you retire?  No.
  2.    Well, you should have.  I sometimes think the same thing, but what could be more fun than being an antitrust lawyer?
  3.    Your website design stinks and for a nominal fee I can fix it and help you lose weight.  I’m not worried about the website design.  But, please email me with the weight loss help.  
  4.    There were concerns that, particularly with international cartels, a whistleblower award could be excessive.  We agree that some allowance should be made to address this possibility.  John Connor offered this helpful comment:  “What is an appropriate standard for the size of the award? Using a percentage the employer’s fine is likely to be excessive. What about 5 or 10 years’ of the whistle-blower’s compensation?”   
  5.  There were some questions as to whether cartel whistleblower bounty provisions exist in other countries.  That is a good question.  We are researching that and will follow up.   
  6. Several people noted that an antitrust whistleblower idea is not a new idea and has never received support in the past from the Antitrust Division or Congress.  This is true, and we may get nowhere with our proposal this time.  But, as we’ve noted, the leniency “cash cow” is slowing down and the SEC whistleblower provision has been a huge success (by most people’s estimation).   Sometimes persistence pays off and the time may have come has come for a successful antitrust whistleblower push.  And, I may humbly suggest that Kimberly Justice and I may have some insights based on our many years with the Antitrust Division that have not been considered before.  We’ll see.

P.S.

The Grassley-Leahy Criminal Antitrust Anti-Retaliation Act of 2017, was just passed unanimously in the Senate.  The legislation would make it unlawful for an employer to retaliate against an employee who reports a violation of antitrust laws or a crime connected to antitrust laws.  This is the third time this legislation has passed the Senate unanimously, but it has never even been taken up by the House.

Stay tuned….

Thanks for reading.

CCC’s: It Is Time for an Antitrust Whistleblower Statute —Part I

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Kimberly Justice and I wrote an article published in Global Competition Review arguing that it is time for an “Antitrust Whistleblower Statute.”  [The article is behind a pay firewall (here).]  Kimberly and I will be expanding on this idea in Cartel Capers blog posts over the next two weeks.  Below is the first installment.  We explain why cartels are a great pond to be fishing in for informants, but a little “whistleblower” bait is needed.

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Over the last several years, Senators Chuck Grassley and Patrick Leahy have introduced antitrust whistleblower legislation that has passed in the Senate but died in the House.  Their proposed legislation would grant job protection to antitrust whistleblowers.  The legislation that Ms. Justice and I are proposing would go further; besides retaliation protection, we would offer potential financial reward to a whistleblower who initiated a successful cartel prosecution.

The time is right for antitrust whistleblower legislation. In 1993, the Antitrust Division revised its Corporate Leniency policy, setting the stage for similar, successful, legislation/polices to be enacted around the world.  Amnesty/Leniency rewards an entire company and its cooperating executives with non-prosecution for coming forward and reporting cartel behavior.  But leniency applications are slowing down—at least that is the perception of many observers—as the cost of obtaining leniency in terms of corporate time and attorney fees, in an expanding universe of jurisdictions, has would-be applicants reassessing the cost/benefit analysis.  A whistleblower statute would not replace, nor in our opinion undercut, leniency policies, but would add a new tool to uncover cartels that exist, and deter new cartels from forming.

There are two features of cartels that are key to understanding why an antitrust whistleblower statute would be a potent and needed weapon in the fight against cartels:

1)         There are many potential whistleblowers in virtually every price-fixing/bid rigging conspiracy.  The culpability level of the many players ranges from Masters (top-level) to Sherpas (working group guy).  Offering a potential whistleblower reward to a single cartel member still leaves a target rich enforcement of culpable executives to focus on; but

2)         It is costly for a potential whistleblower to come forward.  Any member of a cartel, even the least culpable, faces the possibility of significant jail time.  In order for a low-level cartel participant to come forward, he needs to engage a qualified attorney and negotiate a non-prosecution agreement with the Antitrust Division.  This is an expensive, potentially life changing decision.  Long-term unemployment may well follow.  Hefty attorney fees surely will.  Even the most desirable whistleblower—one with no culpability at all, such as a secretary, or customer– will not ensnare herself in a cartel investigation without some means to cover significant attorney costs and reap some compensation for doing “the right [but very costly] thing.”

Ms. Justice and I worked on two investigations which highlight these points.  The first was an international cartel investigation involving both US and foreign companies.  Within each company there were many executives—some retired—that had enough knowledge of the cartel that had they come forward, an investigation would have been opened.  If a single whistleblower had come forward, there still would have been many culpable individuals and companies left to prosecute.

Another prosecution involved a typical bid rigging scheme on a government contract.  This type of scheme is usually initiated by the owner/senior member of the company (who would not be eligible for whistleblower status).  But, it is also typical that an estimator who knows the boss has schemed with a competitor(s) is told to bump up the prices to reflect the agreement.  The estimator is liable as a participant in the cartel, but would make an excellent whistleblower.[1]

Given almost any cartel, international or local, a lower level employee could come forward and likely receive a non-prosecution/cooperation deal under the Antitrust Division’s current Individual Leniency Policy.  But the Individual Leniency Policy is almost never used because a rational person would likely prefer to lay low and hope the crime never gets uncovered than come forward, likely lose his job and have to pay an attorney to negotiate with the Antitrust Division for immunity.  Being an Antitrust Division witness is a marriage that lasts longer than many real marriages.  Criminal antitrust investigations take years, and if it is an international matter, a whistleblower will be called on to be interviewed by many jurisdictions around the globe.  Without some incentive of a reward, an individual would almost certainly not “volunteer” to assist in a cartel investigation.   Even a non-culpable witness/whistleblower such as a customer in whom a salesperson confided or a corporate administrative assistant who saw/heard incriminating information is not likely to come forward to the Antitrust Division on his/her own.

There are many potential antitrust whistleblowers.  But the disincentives to come forward voluntarily are significant.  Some “bait” is needed to entice a whistleblower:  protection from job retaliation and a financial incentive that would cover the significant costs of cooperation and perhaps even provide an “informants’’ bounty.”  The False Claims Act, the SEC and other whistleblower statutes are successful because individuals with knowledge can engage an attorney to guide them through the process in exchange for a possible award of attorney fees and a contingency fee.  The whistleblower’s attorney can develop the potential whistleblower’s claim, negotiate with the government, and represent the potential whistleblower throughout the process, all without an upfront cost to the potential whistleblower.  A former employee, for example, maybe one who has been fired or downsized—would have a way to report illegal conduct without assuming a tremendous legal bill—and even have a financial incentive to do so.

In the next blog post we will discuss some of the objections that have been raised to an antitrust whistleblower statute and why we think none of these concerns are serious enough to kill the whistleblower idea.  But, first, we’ll wrap this segment up by noting a couple of the benefits of a whistleblower statute which may be obvious:

  • A whistleblower can start a criminal cartel investigation with an insider’s view of the agreement and who is party to it. A single whistleblower does not preclude the Antitrust Division from also offering leniency, as it is unlikely one witnesses can provide indictable evidence.  But, whistleblower evidence/assistance should lead to an efficient investigation that preserves the most culpable cartel members for prosecution.
  • Like leniency, as the whistleblower tool gets used and generates publicity, it will be effective in deterring cartels from even forming. This effect is not capable of measurement, but it is logical that if a single member of a cartel (particularly lower-level Sherpas who may not be crazy about carrying out the Master’s scheme) has a means to report the cartel and be rewarded for actionable information, cartel members will have another reason to think twice before engaging in criminal antitrust behavior.

More to come.  Thanks for reading.

robert.connolly@geyergorey.com

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[1]   Where the government is a victim of a fraud—and bid rigging is a fraud—a whistleblower case can currently be brought under the False Claims Act.  There are occasional instances of bid rigging whistleblower case.  But, it would be better to have these types of cases covered by a particular antitrust whistleblower statute and better publicized with an Antitrust Division Office Whistleblower Office.

CCC’s: It’s Time For an Antitrust Whistleblower Statute

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Kimberly Justice and I have written an article arguing that it is time for an “Antitrust Whistleblower Statute.”  The article was published in Global Competition Review, but is behind a paid firewall (here).  Kimberly and I will be expanding on this idea in Cartel Capers blog posts over the next two weeks.  The first installment will be on Monday and explain why cartels are a great pond to be fishing in for informants, but a little “whistleblower” bait is needed. Other topics will include:
1)      An evaluation of the objections to an antitrust whistleblower statute;
2)      A survey of whistleblower related incentives offered by foreign competition agencies;
3)      A preview of what an antitrust whistleblower statute should look like; and
4)      If we receive comments/feedback, we’d like to collect and post them together.
Stay tuned.  Thanks for reading.

CCC’s: Valspar Seeks Third Circuit En Banc Rehearing on Summary Judgment Standard

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In a recent guest post, Richard Wolfram discussed his objections to recent First and Third Circuit decisions on summary judgment in antitrust collusion cases.  See Supreme Court Dodges Question of Antitrust Summary Judgment Standard, Higher Bar to Reach Jury Splitting Circuits, Will Valspar Be Up Next?  Mr. Wolfram wrote:

As Evergreen [First Circuit case] explained in its petition, and as applies equally in Valspar [Third Circuit case], to require that the plaintiff show by a preponderance of evidence on summary judgment that a jury would find in its favor effectively pre-empts the role of the jury, infringes on the Seventh Amendment right of the plaintiff, and is illogical, in effect raising the bar by requiring that the plaintiff satisfy the preponderance standard at both the summary judgment phase and at trial.  Inquiring minds may wonder — will Valspar be the vehicle where the Court finally addresses these issues?

The plaintiff in Valspar just filed a Petition for Panel Rehearing and Rehearing En Banc in the Third Circuit.  Echoing the comments made by Mr. Wolfram, appellant’s petition states:

En banc review is necessary because the panel’s decision eviscerates the protections of Section 1 of the Sherman Antitrust Act by making an unprecedented summary judgment standard for plaintiffs trying to prove a price-fixing conspiracy by circumstantial evidence in the Third Circuit. A majority of the panel incorrectly created a new “more likely than not” standard to evaluate circumstantial evidence at summary judgment.

Valspar’s petition is here: Valspar en banc petition.

Stay tuned.  Thanks for reading

CCC’s: Evergreen: Supreme Court Dodges Question of Antitrust Summary Judgment Standard, Higher Bar to Reach Jury Splitting Circuits. Will Valspar be Next Up?

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Below is a Guest Post by Richard Wolfram, counsel for Evergreen Partnering Group, Inc.  Evergreen filed suit alleging polystyrene converters and their trade association engaged in a concerted refusal to deal with the company in violation of the Sherman Act. The United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts initially dismissed the action.  Evergreen appealed and the First Circuit vacated and remanded. 720 F. 3d 33 (1st Cir. 2013).  The district court then entered summary judgment in favor of the defendants. 116 F. Supp. 3d 1.  (D. Mass. 2015). Evergreen again appealed and the First Circuit upheld the dismissal of the action.  Evergreen Partnering Group v. Pactiv Corp, et. al., 832 F. 3d 1 (1stCir. 2017).  After the First Circuit denied without comment Evergreen’s petition for rehearing, Evergreen filed a petition for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court.  Respondents filed an Opposition brief at the request of the Court and Evergreen filed a Reply.  (No. 16-1148.)

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On October 2, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Evergreen’s petition for certiorari in its concerted refusal to deal case from the First Circuit.  Evergreen contended that the court of appeals, in dismissing the case, misinterpreted and misapplied the summary judgment standard in antitrust, and that the standard itself is the source of significant confusion and inconsistent reasoning among the federal circuits and thus calls for clarification by the Court.  Evergreen’s petition was supported by an amicus brief submitted by 12 professors of antitrust law and economics.

The Court, as is customary, gave no explanation for denying Evergreen’s petition.  The Court lost an important and timely opportunity to clarify an issue that has created tremendous confusion and inconsistency among the circuits — the proper tools for applying the summary judgment standard in antitrust.  Although the Court understandably focuses on issues of law and not fact for petitions that it accepts, one has to wonder what set of facts — with the lower court here improperly weighing evidence and making credibility determinations and applying the much-criticized equal inferences rule — would serve as a better vehicle for resolving this question.  This issue is not going away, and anyone who practices antitrust knows that. Click here and here for articles about the decision.

Confirming this comment, and on the same day, a panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals publicly issued a decision affirming summary judgment dismissal of a Sherman Act Section 1 oligopoly conspiracy case despite findings of 31 uniform price increases by defendants over 11 years, well over any increase in costs and despite declining demand and excess capacity.  Valspar Corp. v. Dupont,  (3d Cir., 10/2/17). Arguably pre-empting the role of the trier of fact, just as Evergreen alleged the First Circuit did in its case, the Third Circuit panel required that the plaintiff provide inferences that the alleged conspiracy was “more likely than not” rather than applying the general summary judgment standard, as repeated by the Supreme Court in Kodak, that the plaintiff show simply that a jury could reasonably find in favor of the plaintiff.  The plaintiff’s burden at trial is to prove its case by a preponderance of evidence (51%), whereas its burden on summary judgment is simply to show that a jury could reasonably find in its favor — which the Supreme Court itself has explained is less than the preponderance standard. As Evergreen explained in its petition, and as applies equally in Valspar, to require that the plaintiff show by a preponderance of evidence on summary judgment that a jury would find in its favor effectively pre-empts the role of the jury, infringes on the Seventh Amendment right of the plaintiff, and is illogical, in effect raising the bar by requiring that the plaintiff satisfy the preponderance standard at both the summary judgment phase and at trial.  Inquiring minds may wonder — will Valspar be the vehicle where the Court finally addresses these issues?  For more information on Valspar, see write-up by the American Antitrust Institute, which filed an amicus in support of the plaintiff (here).

Richard Wolfram  rwolfram@rwolframlex.com

CCC’s: Antitrust Division DAAG Delivers Remarks at International Conference

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The Antitrust Division’s Deputy Assistant Attorney General for International Affairs, Roger Alford delivered a speech on October 3, 2017 in San Paolo, Brazil. (here).  There were no groundbreaking announcements in the speech, but since it was the first delivered since Makan Delrahim took over as head of the Antitrust Division, I thought it might be of interest.

There were two aspects of the talk worth noting.  First, Mr. Alford highlighted the Division’s longstanding focus on holding individuals accountable:

As my colleagues at the Antitrust Division have explained before, “[h]olding companies accountable and assessing large fines, alone, are not the only means, or even the most effective way, to accomplish our goal of deterring and ending cartels. Individuals commit the crimes for which corporate offenders pay. Every corporate crime involves individual wrongdoing.” For that reason, we at the Antitrust Division have a long history of holding individuals accountable for antitrust crimes, and we have consistently touted prison time for individuals as the single most effective deterrent to criminal collusion.

The other item that caught my eye in the speech was the Mr. Alford’s reference to two Antitrust Division recent prosecutions:

  • In June of this year, Yuval Marshak was sentenced to 30 months in prison for participating in a scheme to defraud the U.S. Department of Defense.
  • In 2016, we tried and obtained the conviction of John Bennett for fraud against the United States as a result of a kickback scheme in the procurement of environmental clean-up services. He was ultimately sentenced to five years in prison.

These examples of “fraud prosecutions” are interesting because there is sometimes an internal debate in the Antitrust Division about whether only Sherman Act, (i.e. price fixing or bid rigging) charges should be brought or whether the Division has a broader mandate to prosecute what is sometimes called “corruption of the bidding process.” A “corruption of the bidding process” example would be bribing a procurement official to tailor bid specifications to favor one company.  In a hybrid case, there may be both a bribe of a procurement official and collusion among the favored bidders.

At times, investigation and prosecution of collusion on public contracts such as defense, roads, and schools has been a priority for the Division.  Public contracts are typically where collusion and bribery turn up–and jail sentences tend to be long.  The Division has limited resources, however, so when international cartels dominate, there may be few resources left to devote to public contracts.

The interesting thing about public contract investigations, is that the Division has some ability to be proactive in generating new investigations (as opposed to being reactive to leads/leniencies that come into the Division.)  When resources are available, the Division will often beat the bushes talking to federal agents and procurement officials looking for tips on possible worthwhile investigations.  It will be worth watching to see if there is any noticeable shift in emphasis under the new Antitrust Division leadership.

Thanks for reading.

Three Former Traders for Major Banks Arraigned in Foreign Currency Exchange Antitrust Conspiracy

Monday, July 17, 2017

Three United Kingdom nationals and former traders of major banks voluntarily surrendered to the FBI and were arraigned on a charge arising from their alleged roles in a conspiracy to manipulate the price of U.S. dollars and euros exchanged in the foreign currency exchange (FX) spot market, the Justice Department announced today.

A one-count indictment, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on January 10, 2017, charges Richard Usher (former Head of G11 FX Trading-UK at an affiliate of The Royal Bank of Scotland plc, as well as former Managing Director at an affiliate of JPMorgan Chase & Co.), Rohan Ramchandani (former Managing Director and head of G10 FX spot trading at an affiliate of Citicorp) and Christopher Ashton (former Head of Spot FX at an affiliate of Barclays PLC) with conspiring to fix prices and rig bids for U.S. dollars and euros exchanged in the FX spot market.

The charge in the indictment carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $1 million fine. The maximum fine may be increased to twice the gain derived from the crime or twice the loss suffered by victims if either amount is greater than $1 million.

According to the indictment, from at least December 2007 through at least January 2013, Usher, Ramchandani and Ashton (along with unnamed co-conspirators) conspired to fix prices and rig bids for the euro – U.S. dollar currency pair. Called “the Cartel” or “the Mafia,” this group of traders carried out their conspiracy by participating in telephone calls and near-daily conversations in a private electronic chat room. Their anticompetitive behavior included colluding around the time of certain benchmark rates known as fixes, such as by coordinating their bidding/offering and trading to manipulate the price of the currency pair by the time of the fix or otherwise profit as a result of the fix price. The conspirators also coordinated their trading activities outside of fix times, such as by refraining from entering bids/offers or trading at certain times as a means of stabilizing or controlling price.

The charge in the indictment is merely an allegation, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

This prosecution is being handled by the Antitrust Division’s New York Office and the FBI’s Washington Field Office. Anyone with information concerning price fixing or other anticompetitive conduct in the FX market should contact the Antitrust Division’s Citizen Complaint Center at (888) 647-3258, visit https://www.justice.gov/atr/report-violations or call the FBI tip line at (415) 553-7400.