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.

CCC’s: The Sherman Act is An Unconstitutional Criminal Statute (Part II)

July 19, 2017 by Robert Connolly 2 Comments

In Part 1 of this article (here), I argued that the Sherman Act was unconstitutional as a criminal statute because it is void for vagueness.  A statute that criminalizes all restraints of trade cannot be saved by the Supreme Court explaining what Congress really must have really meant. What passed constitutional muster when the Sherman Act was a misdemeanor[1] merits another look now that the statute carries a maximum jail time of 10 years in prison.

In Part II I discuss how I think the criminal element of the Sherman Act should be fixed.

 The Heir Locators Criminal Indictment May Make This Issue Topical

I want to explain why this topic has come to mind. The Antitrust Division’s heir locators investigation/prosecution garners little attention in the world of massive international cartel investigations, but an indictment in this investigation could have major implications for criminal antitrust prosecutions.[2]  In a recent development, the trial judge ruled that the criminal case should be tried under the Rule of Reason. It is possible this development will set off a chain of events that leads to the Supreme Court revisiting what is necessary for a criminal conviction under the Sherman Act.

Heir locator firms locate potential heirs to an estate from public records and agree to help with their claim in return for a contingency fee.  The amount of the contingency fee depends on factors such as the complexity of the claim, potential recovery etc.  Since the potential heirs are located from public records, they may be contacted by more than one heir locator firm.  According to the indictment, the defendants agreed to allocate customers on a “first to contact basis.”  The firm to which the customers were allocated would pay the firm that “backed off” a percentage of the contingency recovered.  The Division has obtained two guilty pleas in the investigation but defendants Kemp & Associates and its co-owner Daniel J. Mannix were indicted in August 2016 and have pled not guilty.

The indictment appears to be a straight forward customer allocation scheme—a per seviolation.  The defendants:

  • agreed, during those conversations and other communications, that when both co-conspirator companies contacted the same unsigned heir to an estate, the co-conspirator company that first contacted that heir would be allocated certain remaining heirs to that estate who had yet to sign a contract with an Heir Location Services provider;

  • agreed that the co-conspirator company to which heirs were allocated would pay to the other co-conspirator company a portion of the contingency fees ultimately collected from those allocated heirs;

If anything is a per se violation, customer allocation should earn the title.  It eliminates price competition and it can be an easier agreement to monitor/enforce than price fixing.  If you lose a customer you were supposed to get, you know it.  But, the defendants moved that the case should be tried under the rule of reason.  The briefs in the case were filed under seal so it is impossible at this point to understand the defendants’ argument and the government’s response.  Nonetheless, on June 21, 2017 U.S. District Judge David Sam heard oral argument and then granted the defendants’ motion that the case is subject to the rule of reason. He reserved judgment on the motion to dismiss “for further disposition pending the government’s further evaluation of the case.”

I predict that the Antitrust Division will not try a criminal case under the Rule of Reason.  The government will either seek an interlocutory appeal to reverse the district court’s ruling, or drop the case.  The Division is in a tough position because three defendants have already pled guilty.[3]  The Division will not lightly walk away from a prosecution where others have already taken a plea.  On the other hand, the Antitrust Division will not want a precedent that allows the defendant to raise the reasonableness of the conduct.  Defendants have argued in previous criminal cases that the restraint should be judged under a rule of reason, but the Division has had ample authority to beat that argument back.  But, what if the defendants go for the whole enchilada, and seek not just a rule of reason trial, but a complete dismissal of the charges?   It certainly would be helpful to the defendants to have a criminal case tried under the rule of reason, but it would be a home run, or antitrust Hall of Fame material to get the indictment dismissed in its entirety as unconstitutionally void for vagueness.

A Rule of Reason Criminal Case?

One reason the defendants may have moved for a rule of reason trial is that the Supreme Court has already said that this would be permissible.  In United States v. U.S. Gypsum,[4]the Supreme Court held that in a criminal prosecution under the Sherman Act that was subject to rule of reason analysis, “action undertaken with knowledge of its probable consequences and having the requisite anticompetitive effects can be a sufficient predicate for a finding of criminal liability under the antitrust laws.”[5]  That would seem to settle the question, but the Supreme Court has been rightly flexible with stare decisis in overruling numerous other “conventional wisdom” tenets in the antitrust area.  Think vertical restraints, maximum resale price maintenance and resale price maintenance as examples.[6]  Would the Supreme Court decide that a rule of reason criminal case (or a per se case) is unconstitutional.  Would an after-the-fact rule of reason determination (after a quick look?) (or full blown inquiry?) meet the “notice” standard required for a criminal statute?  But, what about the Gypsum required showing of intent of anticompetitive conduct?  Does that save the statute?  But what does that even mean?  Anticompetitive under the “consumer welfare model?”  Measured by the Chicago School?  Post Chicago School?  School of Rock?

I have a proposal to amend the elements of a Sherman Act criminal conviction that eliminates these questions/issues and is warranted in light of the 10-year maximum jail sentence.  (And not to forget, a corporation has paid a $500 million criminal fine.)

If the Restraint is Fraudulent—It’s Criminal

Every head of the Antitrust Division in recent memory has made statements such as, “price fixing, market allocation and bid rigging steal from, and commit fraud upon, American business and customers.”[7] Similarly, an Antitrust Division official has testified, “the [criminal] cases that we are charging and prosecuting are unmistakable fraud.”[8]  Simply put, the litmus test for criminality should be whether the restraint of trade also involves fraud (i.e. a per se violation).  The substantial hammer of justice –lengthy prison sentences, Red Notices, extradition, should be reserved for when a jury finds the defendant engaged in a restraint of trade that involved fraud.

Today, criminal antitrust indictments contain an element of fraud, because of [wise] prosecutorial discretion, not because of the dictates of the statute.  But, antitrust jurisprudence could have taken the path down a fraud requirement instead of veering off to a per se rule (a conclusive presumption that takes the issue of reasonableness out of the juries’ hand), and found that the criminality in the Sherman Act is confined to those agreements that have an element of fraud. Early cases interpreting what was an unreasonable restraint of trade were heading in that direction.

What we now call per se offenses were originally called fraud.  This was recognized as early as 1875 in Craft v. McConoughy,[9] a case involving a secret scheme to fix prices among four Illinois warehouses. The court stated, “To the public the four houses were held out as competing firms for business. Secretly they had conspired together.”[10]  The scheme enabled the parties “by secret and fraudulent means, to control the price of grain.”[11]  In the seminal antitrust case of United States v. Addyston Pipe,[12] the court found secret agreements to refrain from bidding to be a form of fraud: “It is well settled that an agreement between intending bidders at a public auction or a public letting not to bid against each other, and thus prevent competition, is a fraud.”[13] In McMullen v. Hoffman,[14] the Court refused to enforce a contract when one conspirator sued for his portion of the profits from a successful collusive bidding scheme. The Court explained that the agreement “tend[ed] to induce the belief that there really is competition . . . although the truth is that there is no such competition.”[15] The Court held that “the illegal character of the agreement is founded not alone upon the fact that it tends to lessen competition, but also upon the fact of the commission of a fraud by the parties in combining their interests and concealing the same.”[16] The Court distinguished a secret agreement from a known joint venture, where “[t]he public may obtain at least the benefit of the joint responsibility. . . . The public agents know then all that there is in the transaction, and can more justly estimate the motives of the bidders, and weigh the merits of the bid.”[17]  Over a century later, in response to a question as to whether antitrust crimes are crimes of moral turpitude, Antitrust Division Assistant Attorney General Bill Baer responded that “price-fixing, bid-rigging and market allocation agreements among companies that hold themselves out to the public as competitors are inherently deceptive and defraud consumers who expect the benefit of competition.”[18]

Drawing on the wisdom of early Supreme Court decisions and the recent pronouncements of the Antitrust Division, the demarcation between a restraint of trade that can subject the violator to civil penalties and one that subjects the violator to criminal penalties is whether there was an element of fraud.  The Sherman Act should reflect this, either by amendment in Congress, or by Supreme Court further interpretation of what the government is required to prove to subject the defendant to criminal penalties.   In a criminal case the government’s burden should include proving that the agreement was a restraint of trade where the agreement was actively concealed or where the defendant held him/itself out to the public as a competitor when in fact an agreement not to compete or limit competition had been reached without the knowledge of the customer.  In a previous article, I have labeled this standard Per Se Plus.[19]

How would the heir locators indictment fare under such a standard? It is hard to know for sure but the indictment suggests that customers shopped around or there would have been no need for an agreement at all.  And when customers got quotes from more than one company, the customer would reasonably assume there was competition.  And the fraud would be, as the Supreme Court said long ago, “in [the defendants] combining their interests and concealing the same.”

Conclusion

Would requiring the government to prove an element of fraud to obtain a criminal conviction make obtaining convictions more difficult?  The answer must be yes, but as a former Antitrust Division prosecutor, to convince a jury to convict you must argue that the crime wasn’t an “unreasonable restraint of trade” whatever the heck that is—but it was fraud by the lying cheating defendants.  There are benefits to the Antitrust Division that would flow from having to prove fraud, but that’s for another post. Here, I’ll end with this.  The crime should fit the punishment; and with punishment of up to ten years in prison for an individual and hundreds of millions of dollars for a corporation, the Sherman Act needs to be amended to include an element of fraud for a criminal conviction because it is currently unconstitutional.

Thanks for reading.

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[1] When the per se rule was announced in United States v. Socony-Vacuum Oil Co., 310 U.S 150 (1940). a jail sentence was virtually a non-existent possibility. The maximum sentence imposed on any of the convicted individual defendants in Socony Vacuum was a fine of $1000. See Daniel A. Crane, The Story of United States v. Socony Vacuum: Hot Oil and Antitrust in the Two New Deals, in ANTITRUST STORIES 107 (Eleanor M. Fox & Daniel A. Crane eds., 2007).

[2]  U.S. v. Kemp & Associates, Inc. and Daniel J. Mannix, Case: 2:16-cr-00403, (D. Utah 2016) (DS), available at  https://www.justice.gov/atr/file/887761/download.

[3]  Richard Blake agreed to plead guilty in January 2016 as part of a proposed plea agreement between the Antitrust Division and Blake.  His company was not charged, most likely because it had received leniency. California-based Brandenburger & Davis and its president Bradley Davis agreed to plead guilty in December 2015.

[4]  438 U.S. 422 (1978).

[5]  Gypsum, 438 U.S. at 444. fn 21.

[6] The Supreme Court stated in Leegin Creative Leather Products, Inc. v. PSKS, Inc., 551 U.S. 877, 899 (2007).   “Stare decisis is not as significant in this case, however, because the issue before us is the scope of the Sherman Act,” which the Court has treated as a common-law statute.  The Court has been receptive to reviewing the per se rule in light of “new circumstances and new wisdom.”  The severe loss of personal liberty and other consequences now at stake in a Sherman Act criminal case is a new circumstance that warrants an evolution in the application of the per se rule to criminal antitrust cases so that the test for liability will better match the evolution of the law on consequences

[7] Anne K. Bingaman, Assistant Att’y Gen., Antitrust Div., U.S. Dep’t of Justice, The Clinton Administration: Trends in Criminal Antitrust Enforcement, Remarks Before the Corporate Counsel Inst. (Nov. 30, 1995), available at http://www.justice.gov/atr/public/speeches/0471.htm.

[8] Scott D. Hammond, Deputy Assistant Att’y Gen., Antitrust Div., U.S. Dep’t. of Justice, Transcript of Testimony Before the United States Sentencing Commission Concerning Proposed 2005 Amendments to Section 2R1.1 at 3 (Apr. 12, 2005), available at http://www.justice.gov/atr/public testimony/209071.pdf.

[9] 79 Ill. 346 (1875).

[10] Id. at 348.

[11] Id. at 349.

[12] 85 F. 271 (6th Cir. 1898).

[13] Id. at 293 (emphasis added) (citations omitted).

[14] 174 U.S. 639 (1899)

[15] Id. at 646.

[16] Id. at 649.

[17] Id. at 652 (citations omitted).

[18] Letter from Peter J. Kadzik, Principal Deputy Assistant Att’y Gen., U.S. Dep’t of Justice, to Senator Patrick Leahy Attaching Responses of William Baer, Assistant Att’y Gen. Antitrust Div., U.S. Dep’t of Justice to Questions for the Record Arising from the Nov. 14, 2013 Hearing of the Senate Comm. of the Judiciary Regarding Cartel Prosecution: Stopping Price Fixers and Protecting Consumers at 3 (Jan. 24, 2014) (emphasis added), available at http://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/111413QFRs-Baer.pdf.

[19]  Robert E. Connolly, Per Se “Plus:” A Proposal to Revise the Per se Rule in Criminal Antitrust Cases, Antitrust, Vol. 29, No. 2, Spring 2015, p. 105.

CCC’s: For What It’s Worth…..

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Wondering what’s taking Makan so long?  Mr. Delrahim was nominated almost six months ago to head the Antitrust Division of the US Dept. of Justice.  Today, I sent the following email to Senators McConnell and Schumer:

I was sorry to hear of Senator McCain’s health problem but the lull in the health care debate provides an opportunity to hold the vote to get Makan Delrahim confirmed to head the Antitrust Division, US Dept. of Justice. I served 34 years in the Antitrust Division and I know how important Mr. Delrahim’s confirmation is to get matters in the Division moving full speed and to give guidance to the business community. The delay in Mr. Delrahim’s confirmation has generated a lot of concern that has been reported in the press. I have a widely read blog on antitrust matters [OK–that may be puffery] and I have covered also this issue (here).  Mr. Delrahim has strong bipartisan support. It would be great to show the business community that Congress can get some things done. And the dedicated career staff in the Antitrust Division would also greatly appreciate the appointment of a leader of Mr. Delrahim’s qualifications.  Thank you for your consideration.

Robert Connolly

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If you would also like to contact the Senators, they would love to hear from you!

Senator Mitch McConnell

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fax: (202) 224-2499

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Senator Chuck Schumer 

Phone: (202) 224-6542
Fax:  (202) 228-3027

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