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.

Seventh Company Agrees to Plead Guilty for Fixing Prices of Electrolytic Capacitors

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Nichicon Has Agreed to Pay $42 Million Criminal Fine

Nichicon Corporation will plead guilty for its role in a conspiracy to fix prices for electrolytic capacitors sold to customers in the United States and elsewhere, the Department of Justice announced today.

According to the one-count felony charge filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, Nichicon conspired with others to suppress and eliminate competition for electrolytic capacitors from as early as November 2001 until December 2011. In addition to pleading guilty, Nichicon has agreed to pay a $42 million criminal fine and cooperate with the Antitrust Division’s ongoing investigation. The plea agreement is subject to court approval.

“Including today’s charge, the Antitrust Division has now charged seven companies and ten individuals for participating in a long-running conspiracy to fix the price of a critical component in electronic devices used by millions of American consumers,” said Director of Criminal Enforcement Marvin Price of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division. “But our investigation is not over. We are continuing to pursue the companies and executives who conspired to undermine competition in this vital industry.”

Electrolytic capacitors store and regulate electrical current in a variety of electronic products, including computers, televisions, car engines and airbag systems, home appliances and office equipment.

Today’s charge results from ongoing federal antitrust investigations being conducted by the Antitrust Division’s San Francisco Office and the FBI’s San Francisco Field Office into price fixing, bid rigging and other anticompetitive conduct in the capacitor industry. Anyone with information related to the focus of this investigation 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.

Georgia Real Estate Investor Convicted of Bid Rigging and Bank Fraud at Public Foreclosure Auctions

Friday, June 16, 2017

A federal jury convicted a real estate investor of bid rigging and bank fraud related to public foreclosure auctions held in Georgia, the Department of Justice announced today.

Douglas L. Purdy was convicted today following a two-week trial before the Honorable Richard W. Story in Gainesville, Georgia.  The jury convicted Purdy on one count of bid rigging and two counts of bank fraud for participating in the charged conspiracy and scheme at Forsyth County, Georgia, foreclosure auctions from 2008 to 2011.

The evidence at trial showed that Purdy and his co-conspirators agreed not to compete for real estate at foreclosure auctions in Forsyth County and defrauded lender banks and homeowners.  Among other methods, the conspirators held secret “second auctions” of properties they had obtained through rigged bids, dividing among themselves the auction proceeds that should have gone to pay off debts against the properties and, in some cases, to homeowners.

A federal grand jury in the Northern District of Georgia returned an indictment against Purdy on Feb. 3, 2016.  Including Purdy’s conviction, 23 real estate investors have either pleaded guilty or been convicted after trial as a result of the Department’s ongoing antitrust investigations into bid rigging at public foreclosure auctions in the Atlanta area.

The Antitrust Division’s Washington Criminal II Section and the FBI’s Atlanta Division conducted the investigation, with assistance from the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of Georgia.  Anyone with information concerning bid rigging or fraud related to real estate foreclosure auctions should contact the Washington Criminal II Section of the Antitrust Division at 202-598-4000 or call the FBI tip line at 415-553-7400.

Northern California Real Estate Investor Pleads Guilty to Bid Rigging at Public Foreclosure Auctions

Thursday, June 15, 2017

A Northern California real estate investor pleaded guilty yesterday for his role in a conspiracy to rig bids at public real estate foreclosure auctions in Northern California, the Department of Justice announced.

California real estate investor Ramin Rad “Ray” Yeganeh pleaded guilty to one count of bid rigging in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in Oakland.  He was charged in an indictment returned by a federal grand jury in the Northern District of California on June 25, 2015.

According to court documents, as early as September 2008 and continuing until in or about January 2011, Yeganeh conspired with others not to bid against one another, instead designating a winning bidder to obtain selected properties at public real estate foreclosure auctions in Alameda County.  The selected properties were then awarded to the conspirators who submitted the highest bids in second, private auctions.  The private auctions often took place at or near the courthouse steps where the public auctions were held.

The Department determined that the primary purpose of the conspiracies was to suppress and eliminate competition in order to obtain selected real estate offered at Alameda County public foreclosure auctions at noncompetitive prices. When real estate properties are sold at these auctions, the proceeds are used to pay off the mortgage and other debt attached to the property, with remaining proceeds, if any, paid to the homeowner.

The guilty plea entered yesterday was the result of the Department’s ongoing investigation into bid rigging at public real estate foreclosure auctions in San Francisco, San Mateo, Contra Costa and Alameda counties, California. To date, 60 individuals have agreed to plead or have pleaded guilty.

These investigations are being conducted by the Antitrust Division’s San Francisco Office and the FBI’s San Francisco Office. Anyone with information concerning bid rigging or fraud related to real-estate foreclosure auctions should contact the Antitrust Division’s San Francisco Office at (415) 934-5300 or call the FBI tip line at (415) 553-7400.