Mississippi Real Estate Investors Plead Guilty to Conspiring to Rig Bids at Public Foreclosure Auctions

April 10, 2018

Real estate investors Kevin Moore, Chad Nichols, and Terry Tolar pleaded guilty today for their roles in a conspiracy to rig bids at public real estate foreclosure auctions in Mississippi, the Department of Justice announced.

Including Moore, Nichols, and Tolar, five real estate investors have pleaded guilty in this conspiracy. Separate felony charges against Moore, Nichols, and Tolar were filed on April 3, 2018, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.

“Today’s guilty pleas send a strong signal that the Division will prosecute and hold accountable those who conspire to corrupt the competitive process and harm the American consumer,” said Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division. “We extend our thanks to our law enforcement partners, with whom we will continue to investigate bid-rigging crimes in Mississippi—and throughout the United States.”

“Individuals who harm homeowners and defraud companies by cheating our foreclosure system to enrich themselves will face swift and certain criminal prosecution in Mississippi,” said United States Attorney D. Michael Hurst, Jr. for the Southern District of Mississippi. “I applaud the FBI and the Antitrust Division for their tenacity and perseverance in pursuing these criminal actions and shutting this illegal scheme down.”

“Violations of the Sherman Act not only impact America’s financial institutions and distressed homeowners but also damage our free market society as a whole,” said Special Agent in Charge Christopher Freeze of the FBI in Mississippi. “We hope that others participating in this type of corruption understand that the FBI and Department of Justice will continue to protect Americans from price fixing and bid rigging that harm our economy.”

According to court documents, from at least as early as January 12, 2012, through at least as late as April 19, 2017, Moore conspired with others to rig bids, designating a winning bidder to obtain selected properties at public real estate foreclosure auctions in the Southern District of Mississippi. Nichols participated in the conspiracy from as early as April 14, 2010, through as late as February 25, 2015, and Tolar’s participation began as early as January 12, 2012, through as late as March 31, 2017. Co-conspirators made and received payoffs in exchange for their agreement not to bid.

The Department said that the primary purpose of the conspiracy was to suppress and restrain competition in order to obtain selected real estate offered at public foreclosure auctions at non-competitive 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 any remaining proceeds paid to the homeowner. According to court documents, these conspirators paid and received money in connection with their agreement to suppress competition, which artificially lowered the price paid at auction for such homes.

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

The investigation is being conducted by the Antitrust Division’s Washington Criminal II Section and the FBI’s Gulfport Resident Agency, with the assistance of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Mississippi. Anyone with information concerning bid rigging or fraud related to public real estate foreclosure auctions should contact Antitrust Division prosecutors in the Washington Criminal II Section at 202-598-4000, or visit https://www.justice.gov/atr/report-violations.

CCC’s: It’s A Crime There Isn’t a Criminal Antitrust Whistleblower Statute

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Kimberly Justice and I are continuing to write about what we believe is a very important issue in cartel fighting–the passing of criminal antitrust whistleblower legislation.  Below are the opening paragraphs of our latest article on the subject.  The full article, kindly posted by Wolters Kluwer in their Antitrust Law Daily, can be found here.

“The SEC’s wildly successful whistleblower program has returned hundreds of millions of dollars to investors as a result of actionable whistleblower information over the past six years.  The IRS paid one whistleblower more than $100 million for information that helped the government uncover a massive tax evasion scheme and led to a $780 million settlement.  The CFTC predicts that the results of its whistleblower program this year will be “huge.”  The Antitrust Division has paid $0 to whistleblowers and received $0 from cartels exposed by whistleblowers.  Or, as Charlie Brown would say, the Antitrust Division “got a rock.”

There is no cartel whistleblower program and this should change now.  Price-fixing and bid-rigging conspiracies are felonies costing American consumers millions of dollars in the form of artificially high prices.  These fraudulent schemes are particularly suited to exposure by whistleblowers because senior corporate executives frequently use lower level employees (and potential whistleblowers) to carry out the illegal scheme.  The time is right for serious antitrust whistleblower legislation.”

 

Full article here

Thanks for reading.  If you have any reaction/comment you’d like to share please use the comment section or through LinkedIn (here).

Real Estate Investor Sentenced to 30 Months in Prison for Rigging Bids at Northern California Public Foreclosure Auctions

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A real estate investor was sentenced today for his role in conspiracies to rig bids at public real estate foreclosure auctions in Northern California, the Department of Justice announced.

Michael Marr was charged on Nov. 19, 2014, in an indictment returned by a federal grand jury in the Northern District of California.  He was convicted on June 2, 2017, of conspiring to rig bids at foreclosure auctions in Alameda and Contra Costa County.  Today, Marr was sentenced to serve 30 months in prison and to serve 3 years of supervised release.  In addition to his term of imprisonment, Marr was ordered to pay a criminal fine of $1,397,061.59.

“Michael Marr was a driving force behind a multi-year conspiracy to corrupt the public foreclosure auction process through a system of illegal payoffs,” said Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division.  “Today’s sentence reflects the seriousness of that crime.”

The evidence at trial showed that the defendant conspired with others to rig bids to obtain hundreds of properties sold at foreclosure auctions.  The conspirators designated the winning bidders to obtain selected properties at the public auctions, and negotiated payoffs among themselves in return for not competing with one another.  They subsequently conducted private auctions among themselves at or near the courthouse steps where the public auctions were held, awarding the properties to the conspirators who submitted the highest bids in those private auctions.

As the CEO of Community Fund, LLC and Community Realty Property Management Inc., Marr sent multiple employees to the foreclosure auctions to rig bids on his behalf.  As part of the conspiracies, Marr’s agents purchased several hundred properties through the bid-rigging conspiracies and were owed payoffs on hundreds more.

When real estate properties are sold at public auctions, the proceeds are used to pay off the mortgage and other debt attached to the property, with the remaining proceeds paid to the homeowner.

The sentence is a result of an ongoing investigation into bid rigging at public real estate foreclosure auctions in California’s San Francisco, San Mateo, Alameda, and Contra Costa counties, which is 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 public 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.

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).

Mississippi Real Estate Investors Plead Guilty to Conspiracy to Rig Bids at Public Foreclosure Auctions

Thursday, February 15, 2018

First Convictions in Mississippi Real Estate Foreclosure Auctions Investigation

Two real estate investors pleaded guilty today for their roles in a conspiracy to rig bids at public real estate foreclosure auctions in Mississippi, the Department of Justice announced.

“Shannon and Jason Boykin are the first two defendants to plead guilty in the Antitrust Division’s active, ongoing investigation into anticompetitive behavior at real estate foreclosure auctions in Mississippi,” said Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division.  “In the past few years, the Division has secured convictions of over 100 individuals around the country.  The Division remains committed to rooting out anticompetitive conduct at foreclosure auctions.”

Felony charges against Shannon Boykin and Jason Boykin were filed on February 1, 2018, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi.  According to court documents, from at least as early May 22, 2012, through at least as late as March 22, 2017, Jason and Shannon Boykin conspired with others to rig bids, designating a winning bidder to obtain selected properties at public real estate foreclosure auctions in the Southern District of Mississippi. Co-conspirators made and received payoffs in exchange for their agreement not to bid.

“Rigging, cheating and swindling foreclosure auctions undermines confidence in the marketplace, defrauds companies, and hurts owners of foreclosed homes.  These criminal actions harm us all, and I commend the Antitrust Division and the FBI for their investigation and prosecution of these crimes throughout the country. This office will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to combat illegal, anticompetitive behavior and protect victims,” said United States Attorney D. Michael Hurst, Jr. for the Southern District of Mississippi.

“The criminal actions of the defendants in this case provide a clear example of why enforcement of the Sherman Act remains necessary in maintaining a competitive field of commerce,” said Special Agent in Charge Christopher Freeze of the FBI in Mississippi. “The FBI will continue to work with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division in identifying such financial schemes that attempt to take advantage of the competitive process, including schemes targeting foreclosure auctions.”

The Department said that the primary purpose of the conspiracy was to suppress and restrain competition in order to obtain selected real estate offered at public foreclosure auctions at non-competitive 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.  According to court documents, these conspirators paid and received money in connection with their agreement to suppress competition, which artificially lowered the price paid at auction for such homes.

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

The investigation is being conducted by the Antitrust Division’s Washington Criminal II Section and the FBI’s Gulfport Resident Agency, with the assistance of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Mississippi.  Anyone with information concerning bid rigging or fraud related to public real estate foreclosure auctions should contact Antitrust Division prosecutors in the Washington Criminal II Section at 202-598-4000, or visit https://www.justice.gov/atr/report-violations.

Three Real Estate Investors Indicted for Bid Rigging in Florida Online Foreclosure Auctions

Friday, November 3, 2017

A federal grand jury in West Palm Beach returned an indictment yesterday against three high-volume Florida real estate investors for conspiring to rig bids submitted through the online property foreclosure auction process, the Department of Justice announced.

The indictment, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, charges Avi Stern, Christopher Graeve, and Stuart Hankin with conspiring to rig bids during online auctions in Palm Beach County, Florida in order to obtain foreclosed properties at suppressed prices.  The indictment alleges that the conduct took place from at least January 2012 until June 2015.

These are the first indictments related to bid rigging in foreclosure auctions filed in Florida by the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division.  The Antitrust Division previously has prosecuted similar bid rigging conduct in Alabama, California, Georgia and North Carolina, resulting in more than 100 guilty pleas and convictions in those states.

“These charges demonstrate that the Antitrust Division will uncover and prosecute collusion by real estate investors, regardless of whether their conduct is carried out in person, or in texts, online chats or through other electronic means,” said Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division.  “The Division will continue to work closely with our law enforcement colleagues to prosecute those responsible for taking money that would otherwise have gone to mortgage holders, Palm Beach County, and in some cases, to the owners of foreclosed homes.”

“Real estate investors who think they can swindle the system to line their pockets with ill-gotten gains beware,” said Assistant Special Agent in Charge Paul Keenan of the FBI Miami’s Field Office. “The FBI and our law enforcement partners will vigorously investigate such schemes.”

An indictment merely alleges that crimes have been committed, and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

These charges have been filed as a result of the ongoing investigation being conducted by the Antitrust Division’s Washington Criminal I Section and the FBI’s Miami Division – West Palm Beach Resident Agency.  Anyone with information concerning bid rigging or fraud related to public real estate foreclosure auctions should contact the Washington Criminal I Section of the Antitrust Division at 202-307-6694 or www.justice.gov/atr/contact/newcase.html.

Leading Electrolytic Capacitor Manufacturer Indicted for Price Fixing

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Nippon Chemi-Con Is Eighth Company Charged in Long-Running Conspiracy

A federal grand jury returned an indictment against an electrolytic capacitor manufacturer for participating in a conspiracy to fix prices for electrolytic capacitors sold to customers in the United States and elsewhere, the Department of Justice announced today.

The indictment, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco, charges that Nippon Chemi-Con Corporation, based in Japan, conspired to suppress and eliminate competition for electrolytic capacitors from as early as September 1997 until January 2014.  Three current Nippon Chemi-Con executives, and one former Nippon Chemi-Con executive, were previously indicted for their participation in the conspiracy: Takuro Isawa, Takeshi Matsuzaka, Yasutoshi Ohno, and Kaname Takahashi.

“Today’s indictment affirms the Antitrust Division’s commitment to holding companies accountable for conspiring to cheat American consumers,” said Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division.  “The Division will prosecute companies—no matter where they are located—that violate U.S. antitrust laws.”

According to the one-count felony charge, Nippon Chemi-Con carried out the conspiracy by agreeing with co-conspirators to fix prices of electrolytic capacitors during meetings and other communications.  Capacitors were then sold in accordance with these agreements.  As part of the conspiracy, Nippon Chemi-Con and its co-conspirators took steps to conceal the conspiracy, including the use of code names and providing misleading justifications for prices and bids submitted to customers in order to cover up their collusive conduct.

As a result of the government’s ongoing investigation, eight companies and ten individuals have been charged with participating in a conspiracy to fix prices of electrolytic capacitors.  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.

An indictment merely alleges that crimes have been committed, and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

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 1-888-647-3258, visit https://www.justice.gov/atr/report-violations, or call the FBI tip line at 415-553-7400.

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

Friday, October 6, 2017

Investigations Have Yielded 63 Plea Agreements to Date

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

Jim Appenrodt pleaded guilty to two counts of bid rigging in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco. Appenrodt was charged in an indictment returned by a federal grand jury on October 22, 2014.

According to court documents, Appenrodt participated in a conspiracy to rig bids by agreeing to refrain from bidding against other coconspirators at public real estate foreclosure auctions in San Francisco County and San Mateo County from as early as August 2008 until January 2011.

“The Antitrust Division has prosecuted scores of real estate investors who, for their own benefit and profit, conspired to corrupt the bidding process at foreclosure auctions,” said Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division.  “Today’s guilty plea demonstrates the Division’s continued commitment to bringing to justice the individuals who committed these crimes.”

Today’s guilty plea is 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, 63 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. 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.

Real Estate Investor Sentenced to 14 Months in Prison for Rigging Bids at Northern California Public Foreclosure Auctions

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

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

Brian McKinzie was charged on June 30, 2011, in an indictment returned by a federal grand jury in the Northern District of California. McKinzie pleaded guilty on Oct. 26, 2016, to two counts of bid rigging at real-estate foreclosure auctions in Alameda and Contra Costa County. Today, McKinzie was sentenced to serve 14 months in prison and to serve three years of supervised release. In addition to his term of imprisonment, McKinzie was ordered to pay a criminal fine of $10,000 and $652,824.43 in restitution.

“Today’s sentence reflects the seriousness of offenses that subvert the competitive process,” said Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division.  “The Division remains firm in its resolve to seek prison terms for individuals who commit antitrust crimes.”  

Between November 2008 and January 2011, McKinzie and other bidders at the auctions conspired not to bid against one another for selected properties, instead designating a winning bidder to win the property at the auction. The members of the conspiracy then held second, private auctions, known as “rounds,” to award the properties to members of the conspiracy and determine payoffs for other conspirators who had agreed not to bid against each other at the public auctions. The private auctions often took place at or near the courthouse steps where the public auctions were held.

When real estate properties are sold at public auctions, the proceeds are used to pay off the mortgage and other debt attached to the property, with the remaining proceeds, if any, paid to the homeowner.

The sentence is a result of the division’s ongoing investigation into bid rigging at public real estate foreclosure auctions in California’s San Francisco, San Mateo, Alameda and Contra Costa counties. 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 public 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.

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.