CCC’s: It Is Time For An Antitrust Whistleblower Statute–Part 2

Objections to an Antitrust Whistleblower Statute

The idea of an antitrust whistleblower is not new, but it has never gained much traction in the past.  There have been significant objections, or at least disinterest—particularly from the Department of Justice.  The mood seemed to be “Our cup runneth over with Amnesty applications so let’s not screw this thing up.”  But, perhaps times have changed.  Our analysis is that the objections to a whistleblower statute were either superficial, or when having merit, still not enough to outweigh the benefits of a whistleblower statute.

Before considering some of the possible downside to an antitrust whistleblower statute, a little explanation of what we have in mind may be helpful.  We propose an SEC-style whistleblower statue where an informant can be awarded a level of compensation (bounty) when information of illegality leads to charges and recovery by the SEC. This is different than a False Claims Act qui tam case where a Relator brings a case in the name of the government alleging the government has been defrauded.  In fact, an antitrust whistleblower statute is needed because a qui tam case is not generally available in price-fixing matters since it is the private sector, not the government that has been harmed.

Concerns About an Antitrust Whistleblower statute

 It’s worth noting that the Criminal Antitrust Anti-Retaliation Act has been passed twice unanimously by the Senate in the last two Congresses and is up for vote again on the Senate floor.  It will no doubt pass—most likely again unanimously.  There is agreement that a person who reports criminal antitrust activity should not face retaliation in the workplace. (Despite the consensus, the House has failed to take up this bill the last two times it has passed the Senate).  There is controversy, however, about whether a whistleblower should be eligible for some type of bounty if the information leads to successful cartel prosecution and the imposition of fines.

In 2011, the General Accounting Office Published a report on Criminal Cartel Enforcement that reported stakeholders’ views on a possible antitrust whistleblower statute (here).  This is a summary of the GAO findings:

There was no consensus among key stakeholders GAO interviewed–antitrust plaintiffs’ and defense attorneys, among others–regarding the addition of a whistleblower reward, but they widely supported adding antiretaliatory protection. Nine of 21 key stakeholders stated that adding a whistleblower reward in the form of a bounty could result in greater cartel detection and deterrence, but 11 of 21 noted that such rewards could hinder DOJ’s enforcement program. Currently, whistleblowers who report criminal antitrust violations lack a civil remedy if they experience retaliation, such as being fired, so they may be hesitant to report criminal wrongdoing, and past reported cases suggest retaliation occurs in this type of situation. All 16 key stakeholders who had a position on the issue generally supported the addition of a civil whistleblower protection though senior DOJ Antitrust Division officials stated that they neither support nor oppose the idea.

The GAO report is several years old and it may be that positions have been reevaluated.  For example, I think the Antitrust Division today would support the anti-retaliation measures in whistleblower statute.  But below is an analysis of some of the objections raised to making a bounty available to an antitrust whistleblower.

Whistleblower Credibility

 The Antitrust Division’s principal concern was that jurors may not believe a witness who stands to benefit financially from successful enforcement action against those he implicated.  GAO Report p. 39.  But, a whistleblower is highly unlikely to ever be a principle witness at a trial.  An antitrust crime typically involves many culpable actors.  A whistleblower would generally “get the ball rolling” and provide evidence that will turn other witnesses, and allow subpoenas and search warrants from target companies.  Further, a single whistleblower who might receive a financial reward seems no less credible than witnesses from an amnesty company where everyone—including the highest-ranking culpable executives—will have escaped criminal prosecution.  Also, criminal antitrust trials are relatively rare—almost all cases are resolved by pleas.  Finally, it is not logical to worry about the credibility of a witness you would otherwise not even know about absent a whistleblower statute.

A Whistleblower Reward Could Result in Claims That Do Not Lead to Criminal Prosecution: 

 There was some fear expressed in the GAO report that would-be whistleblowers would fabricate information in order to conjure up a cartel in the hopes of collecting a reward.  GAO Report p. 40.  Anything is possible, but the Antitrust Division folks are pretty savvy and have standards for opening grand jury investigations.  Moreover, the possibility of fabricated charges exists today with a company applying for leniency in the hopes of knee-capping competitors who would have to deal with a criminal cartel investigation.  The reality is a “false accusation” simply wouldn’t be corroborated by anyone else and could land the accuser in jail for making a false statement.

In a similar vane, concern was expressed that a whistleblower statute may result in a deluge of complaints to the Antitrust Division that would take additional resources to sift through.  This seems like a good problem to have.  When Ms. Justice and I were at the Division, we received a fair number of complaints that amounted to no more than oligopoly pricing.  It did not take too much time to ask: “What else ya got?”

* * * * * Click Here for the Rest of the Story * * * * *

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: 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.

CCC’s: UK’s Competition and Market Authority: [Real] Estate Agents Cartel Case Study

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I thought this might be of interest to readers and/or to pass on to clients.  The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) just published a case study of their investigation of a real estate against cartel in the UK (here).   Below are the lessons learned section of the study:

What are the lessons?

  • Be careful when talking business with your competitors – make sure you don’t agree not to compete with each other.

  • Be especially wary of any conversations about pricing, or about a shared approach to pricing. Each business must set and decide its prices independently.

  • Competition law applies to small businesses as well as large ones. The estate agents in this case were small local or regional businesses.

  • The consequences of breaking competition law can be severe; fines can be as much as 10% of a business’ global turnover and a director can be banned from being a director of a company, or being involved in the promotion, formation or management of one, for up to 15 years. In the most serious cases, individuals can go to prison for up to 5 years. [In the United States the maximum prison sentence is 10 years.]

  • Competition law applies to all industries and the CMA will take action against those breaking the law.

  • The Somerset estate agents’ cartel is the second recent enforcement case the CMA has taken in the property sector. The CMA remains committed to tackling illegal anti-competitive conduct in the sector.

You can subscribe to the CMS for email updates (here).

Thanks for reading.

E-Commerce Company and Top Executive Agree to Plead Guilty to Price-Fixing Conspiracy for Customized Promotional Products

Monday, August 7, 2017

Conspiracy Was Conducted Through Social Media and Encrypted Messaging Applications

An e-commerce company and its top executive have agreed to plead guilty to conspiring to fix prices for customized promotional products sold online to customers in the United States. Zaappaaz Inc. (d/b/a WB Promotions Inc., Wrist-Band.com and Customlanyard.net) and its president Azim Makanojiya agreed to plead guilty to a one-count criminal violation of the Sherman Act.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Andrew Finch of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division, Acting U.S. Attorney Abe Martinez and Special Agent in Charge Perrye K. Turner of the FBI’s Houston Field Division made the announcement.

According to the felony charges filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in Houston, the conspirators attended meetings and communicated in person and online. The investigation has revealed that the conspirators used social media platforms and encrypted messaging applications, such as Facebook, Skype and Whatsapp, to reach and implement their illegal agreements. Specifically, the defendants and their co-conspirators agreed, from as early as 2014 until June 2016, to fix the prices of customized promotional products sold online, including wristbands and lanyards. In addition to agreeing to plead guilty, Zaappaaz has agreed to pay a $1.9 million criminal fine.

“As today’s charges show, criminals cannot evade detection by conspiring online and using encrypted messaging,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Andrew Finch. “In addition, today’s charges are a clear sign of the Division’s commitment to uncovering and prosecuting collusion that affects internet sales. American consumers have the right to a marketplace free of unlawful collusion, whether they are shopping at retail stores or online.”

“Schemes like the defendants’ cause financial harm to consumers who purchase goods and services and to businesses who sell goods and services in compliance with the laws of the United States,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Abe Martinez. “The United States will continue to investigate and prosecute individuals and businesses who seek to gain an illegal advantage.”

“The FBI stands ready to protect consumers from unscrupulous business practices,” said Special Agent in Charge Perrye K. Turner. “Antitrust laws help protect the competitive process for the benefit of all consumers.”

Makanojiya is charged with price fixing in violation of the Sherman Act which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in federal prison and a maximum fine of $1 million for individuals. The maximum fine for an individual may be increased to twice the gain derived from the crime or twice the loss suffered by the victims of the crime if either of those amounts is greater than the statutory maximum fine.

Both defendants have agreed to cooperate with the Antitrust Division’s ongoing investigation. The plea agreements are subject to court approval.

This prosecution arose from an ongoing federal antitrust investigation into price fixing in the online promotional products industry, which is being conducted by the Antitrust Division’s Washington Criminal I Section with the assistance of the FBI’s Houston Field Office. Anyone with information on price fixing or other anticompetitive conduct in the customized promotional products industry should contact the Antitrust Division’s Citizen Complaint Center at 888-647-3258 or visit www.justice.gov/atr/contact/newcase.html.

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.