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.

CCC’s: The Sherman Act is Unconstitutional as a Criminal Statute: (Part 1)

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If you get lost, sometimes you must go back and start again from the beginning. I’ve been a bit lost on whether the Sherman Act is unconstitutional as a criminal statute. It is well accepted that per se violations of the Sherman Act can be prosecuted criminally.  An individual can be sentenced to up to ten years in prison.  But, is the accepted learning on this issue wrong?  I think I’ve found my way to the Sherman Act being unconstitutional as a criminal statute.[1]

Forget everything you know about Supreme Court jurisprudence involving the criminal application of the Sherman Act (that was easy for me).  Take a look at the statute:

Every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, is declared to be illegal.

Can you advise your client what exactly is declared to be illegal?  And watch his face show even more alarm when you explain that whatever it is that he can’t do, if he does do it, the penalty is up to 10 years in prison.[2]   The Sherman Act is void for vagueness.  Justice Sutherland explained the void for vagueness doctrine in Connally v. General Construction Co, 269 U.S. 385, 391 (1926):

The terms of a penal statute…must be sufficiently explicit to inform those who are subject to it what conduct on their part will render them liable to its penalties….and a statue which either forbids or requires the doing of an act so vague that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application violates the first essential of due process of law.

The Sherman Act does not sufficiently inform business people (including foreigners) what conduct can land them in jail or on a Red Notice.  This must be true because even the Supreme Court has said the Sherman Act cannot possibly mean what it says because every contract is in restraint of trade, and every contract cannot be illegal.  Thus, the first Supreme Court triage on the Sherman Act was that only “unreasonable restraints” of trade were prohibited.[3]  But, that doesn’t clear things up too much—What is an unreasonable restraint of trade?  Under the Rule of Reason, a restraint is unlawful only, if after an inquiry to balance the pro-competitive benefits of the agreement versus its anticompetitive effects, the agreement is found to unreasonably restrain trade.  But can you find someone guilty of a crime after weighing the pro-competitive and anticompetitive effects of the agreement?  That doesn’t seem like the notice required by due process either.  Further Supreme Court surgery on the Sherman Act separated out per se violations–restraints of trade that are so highly unlikely to have any redeeming competitive benefits, that the restraints (price-fixing, bid rigging and customer/market allocation) are per se illegal.  As a result, juries are charged in a criminal antitrust case that they do not need to find that the restraint was unreasonable, but simply that the defendant(s) entered into an agreement to fix prices, which, by judicial fiat, is per se unreasonable.

Does the per se rule solve the void for vagueness problem?  The conventional wisdom is that it has.  But changed circumstances sometimes compel a “fresh look” at accepted wisdom.  It is time for that fresh look.  The changed circumstance that comes to mind is that the Sherman Act is no longer a misdemeanor.  It is not a “gentlemen’s crime” meriting a slap on the wrist with a mild scolding from the judge.[4]  The Sherman Act, as a criminal statute, provides for an individual to be sentenced to up to 10 years in jail.  And the ten years is not just theoretical; the Antitrust Division sought a 10-year prison sentence for the CEO of AU Optronics after his conviction.  While the ten-year sentence was not achieved, the record prison sentence for a criminal antitrust violation is now 5 years. [5]

I am not a constitutional scholar, but I do have a blog so I’ll opine what I think is wrong with the Sherman Act as a criminal statute.[6]  First, the Supreme Court cannot save a criminal statute by grafting on elements such as condemning only “unreasonable” restraints of trade, and further holding that only certain types of agreements are per se unreasonable.  But even if the Supreme Court could address the void for vagueness doctrine by holding that only certain restraints are per se illegal, this violates another constitutional tenet; the Supreme Court takes away the issue from the jury with an unrebuttable presumption.  Charles D. Heller has written on this subject and argued that the current practice of instructing the jury that price-fixing is per se illegal, i.e., presumptively unreasonable, is unconstitutional.  The jury should be the fact-finder of whether a restraint is unreasonable.[7]  Finally, the definition of a per se offense is that the restraint (price-fixing for e.g.) is so highly likely to be anticompetitive that there is no inquiry as to whether the actual restraint the defendant is charged with was anticompetitive.  This may be fine for a civil case, but in a criminal case the defendant must be allowed to argue that the charged restraint was the exception to the rule.  Instead, in a criminal case the jury may be charged:

It is not a defense that the parties may have acted with good motives, or may have thought that what they were doing was legal, or that the conspiracy may have had some good results.

This seems like a very odd jury instruction for a crime that carries a ten-year maximum prison sentence, especially when one considers that many of the defendants in criminal antitrust indictments are foreigners.[8]

In short, the Sherman Act is void for vagueness.  But, if the Act does pass the void for vagueness hurdle by grafting on the per se rule, juries should decide whether the restraint in question is unreasonable, and that inquiry should not be contained by a presumption the restraint was per se unreasonable if it was price-fixing, bid rigging or market allocation.  If these standards were applied, however, the Sherman Act would be unworkable.  If juries decided, in an after the fact deliberation, whether a restraint was unreasonable, the void for vagueness doctrine would trump a conviction.  Sad.  Very sad.

My solution to the problem, if there really is a problem, will come as soon as I figure it out—but no later than next week– in Part II.

Thanks for reading.  Comments would be much appreciated, but maybe hold your fire until after Part II?

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[1]  I am not the first to reach this conclusion.  The work of several other authors who find likewise is mentioned in the post.

[2]   Maybe this language that is in Sherman Act indictments will clear things up: “For the purpose of forming and carrying out the charged combination and conspiracy, the defendant and his co-conspirators did those things that they combined and conspired to do.”  To be fair, the indictments then “bullet point” a list of acts the defendant(s) engaged in to carry out the conspiracy.

[3]   Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States, 221 U.S. 1 (1911).

[4]   I was a brand new Antitrust Division attorney in one trial where we obtained convictions not too long after Sherman Act had been made a felony.  At sentencing, the first convicted defendant got a wicked tongue lashing, but the judge said that, due to his youth and relative inexperience, he would not be sentenced to prison.  The next defendant—ditto on the tongue lashing—but the judge found he should not be sentenced to prison because he was elderly and now retired.

[5]  Frank Peake was sentenced to 5 years in prison for his participation in a conspiracy to fix the prices on cargo shipped by water between the United States and Puerto Rico.  See,  https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/former-sea-star-line-president-sentenced-serve-five-years-prison-role-price-fixing-conspiracy.  Foreign executives are frequent defendants in criminal antitrust cases and may be put on a Red Notice with dire consequences simply by being indicted.

[6]   For a more scholarly article that takes a look at the void for vagueness doctrine and its implications for the Sherman Act, see Sherman Act and Avoiding Void-for Vagueness, Matthew G. Sipe, posted May 16, 2017, available at, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2968933&download=yes.

[7]  See Charles D. Weller, The End of Criminal Antitrust Per se Conclusive Presumptions, 58 ANTITRUST BULL. 665 (2013).

[8]   Some strict liability crimes (i.e., statutory rape) can have no intent element but the Sherman Act is not a strict liability crime.

The 3C’s: Will President Trump Revive Section 2 of the Sherman Act?

Below is a post by Brad Geyer, my partner at GeyerGorey LLP.  As you can tell from the title of the post, it is not the typical Cartel Capers fare, but you might find it interesting.

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By Bradford L. Geyer [1]

When I concluded by summer of 2015 that our next President would be Donald Trump, my closest friends and associates were skeptical. Having grown up in the New York media market and reading the “Art of the Deal” after college, I studied Donald Trump because he was interesting. You are free to see it differently, but I see in President-Elect Trump as a strategic and tactical thinker who comes off as being spontaneous and off the cuff, but is actually in the third decade of his strategic plan. To read his books and to watch old videos shows a consistency in public policy views that is startling.

Few took President-Elect Trump seriously over the years in his statements about Antitrust, but like the protagonists in a movie, the best ones like to tell the antagonists that it’s coming.   Any mystery about President-Elect Trump’s Antitrust enforcement priorities should have been eliminated when in his “Gettysburg address” outlining his plans for his first 100 days, he blasted the media and turned his ire toward the Comcast / NBC Universal merger stating that the merged company is “trying to poison the mind of the American voter,” and said that the deal should never have been approved in the first place, and that it’s bad for democracy (here). He took his complaints further, promising action to prevent AT&T from buying Time Warner, the parent company of CNN, which he argued would concentrate too much power in one company (here). “We’ll look at breaking that deal up and other deals like it,” he vowed. “They’re trying to poison the mind of the American voter.”

President-Elect Trump has already been equally clear in expressing his thoughts about Amazon [2]:

Amazon has “a huge antitrust problem,” and (Jeff) Bezos (owner of the Washington Post and founder of Amazon.com) “thinks I would go after him for antitrust.”

– from the Twitter account of @realDonaldTrump (May 14, 2016)(here)

President-Elect Trump may have the most sophisticated view of Antitrust Law of any U.S. President in history. That experience was recently referenced by Emre N. Ilter in the National Law Review:

Mr. Trump was involved in three significant antitrust proceedings in the late 1980s and early 1990s. First, in 1988, Mr. Trump paid a $750,000 civil penalty to settle charges brought by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that he had violated the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act (HSR Act) by acquiring stock in two companies without making timely HSR filings. Around the same time, Mr. Trump, as one of the owners of the New Jersey Generals US Football League team, was involved in a private antitrust suit against the National Football League (NFL)—a case that resulted in a jury verdict that the NFL had willfully acquired or maintained monopoly power in a market consisting of major league professional football in the United States, in violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act. Damages of $1, trebled to $3, were awarded. US Football League v. Nat’l Football League, 842 F.2d 1335 (2d Cir. 1988). Finally, Mr. Trump, in connection with his Atlantic City casinos, was sued by Boardwalk Properties, Inc. on numerous grounds including allegations that he had attempted to monopolize casino gambling and had conspired to suppress competition. After a lengthy legal battle, Mr. Trump prevailed. (here).

Combine experience, competition sophistication and seething intensity [3] and recognize that in the early 1980’s there were 50 media companies in the United States. Now that number is 6[4]. I suspect he believes there is a significant conscious parallelism among these six companies and there seems to be tight coordination and collaboration –a common gestalt — among these organizations on a host of issues. Call it a “thought cartel”. I would suggest that recent Wikileaks disclosures are likely to have reinforced this view among him and his team of advisors who may suspect that media companies are inducing lax regulation through maximizing the benefits of close relationships of its media figures with the political apparatus.[5]  Further, is President-Elect Trump viewing AT&T, Time Warner, Amazon, Comcast and even Google [6] individually as “media and information trusts”, as he finalizes his enforcement initiatives? My hunch is that he is and that each of these companies is at risk of enhanced enforcement attention.

It is clear that President Elect-Trump understands the power of the bully pulpit and he knows that if he can get AT&T and Time Warner to abort merger discussions before “the sheriff even rides into town” that means: 1) less work for him; 2) emboldened career civil service enforcers who were gearing up to make the case for blocking it; and 3) an enhanced perception of the Antitrust Division’s power. This, before he takes the oath of office in January, means enhanced leverage on day one.

I believe that it is possible he will pick a high visibility company, possibly on the crest of the wave of an aborted AT&T deal, to break up. So what potential “trust” will it be? Amazon has attracted criticism and controversy for years. Many of the criticisms are tied to allegations of anti-competitive or monopolistic behavior.  Does President-Elect Trump agree with Paul Krugman who recently penned, “Amazon.com, the giant online retailer, has too much power, and it uses that power in ways that hurt America.”[7]  Could the Department of Justice under the leadership of an Attorney General appointed by President-Elect Trump quite credibly take the view that Amazon is the Standard Oil Company or the AT&T or the Microsoft of its day [8] and bring an action to break it up?

I am certain that President-Elect Trump will announce that enforcement of the nation’s Antitrust Laws needs to be reinvigorated and that allegations of predatory pricing and attempts to monopolize certain sectors of the economy will not be tolerated. Some might expect that a Republican administration would line up alongside lax Section 2 enforcement. It is clear, however, that whatever else might be expected in a Trump administration, based on his statements throughout the campaign, consistency with Republican orthodoxy is not that thing and affected companies would be well served to increase their outside counsel budget.

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1. Mr. Geyer is a partner in the Washington and Philadelphia-based law firm of GeyerGorey LLP. Prior to entering private practice he was a prosecutor in the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice for 21 years. From 2007 through 2012 he served as the Antitrust Division’s Special Counsel to the Criminal Division involving “war zone” cases and investigations involving procurement fraud and grand fraud.

2.  President-Elect Trump on Hannity May 12, 2016 at 15:59 through 17:20. “[Jeff Bezos is] using the Washington Post . . . he’s using that for political purposes to save Amazon in terms of taxes and in terms of antitrust.

3.  Any member of the Antitrust defense bar who would like to get a flavor of what I suspect will be reinvigorated Antitrust Enforcement under a Trump administration would be well served to watch this video which shows Seth Rogan and President Obama roasting President Elect Trump in 2011. If you are like me, when you watch this video you see a ferocious Kodiak bear in a cage that is being poked with sticks. The Bear is not reacting, but you can tell he is going to bust out of the cage and tear the pokers to shreds … after he constructs an ingenious plan. There is something about his reaction that makes you feel uncomfortable from the first Rogan joke. You want to plead with the men with the sticks to “please just stop.”   You actually look in your hand to make sure you aren’t holding a stick and try to drop it anyway. That is called power and intensity and control. He has it and he knows how to use it.

4.  See, The Media Monopoly, 6th Edition, March 24, 2000, by Ben H. Bagdikian.

5.  For example, in an April 15, 2014 email released by WikiLeaks, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, proposed that a $1.5 billion Clinton Campaign vehicle be formed that, among other things, to convert each voter to a single record that aggregates all that is known about them. Are enforcers entitled to wonder if voters across the country want to be converted into a record and whether this market share in this endeavor is aided by power in Google’s core businesses? Would Google’s relationship with the Clinton campaign team regenerate an interest in their potential antitrust issues as Europe has? (When enforcers read this email does it bring the movie, “the Clockwork Orange” to mind like it did for me?).

6.  See, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/31/technology/google-europe-antitrust.html

7.   See, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/20/opinion/paul-krugman-amazons-monopsony-is-not-ok.html?_r=0

8.   Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States, 221 U.S. 1 (1911); United States v. American Tel. and Tel. Co. , 552 F.Supp. 131 (D.D.C. 1982); United States v. Microsoft Corp. , 56 F.3d 1448 (D.C.Cir . 1995).

CCC’s: I Know this Looks Bad, But…..

When I was a kid, there were times when it looked like I was in big trouble, but was able to talk my way out of it.  “Mom, I know this looks bad, but ….”  (Probably I did do it, but it was good practice for being a lawyer.)  There are times when even the most ethical companies can “look” like they may have violated the antitrust laws.  And it may not be as simple as explaining to Mom why things aren’t the way they look.  That “splaining” may take years of costly litigation, even for a defendant that hasn’t done anything wrong.  That is why antitrust/competition law compliance training is important, even for companies that have the highest ethical standards.  Not only is it important to not violate the law, but it is import to know how to communicate the pro-competitive merits of actions in the marketplace and to document why decisions were made.

Let me give one example.  In a commodity market with few sellers, it is natural that prices are going to be similar, if not identical.  If a company’s pricing is above the market in a commodity, their sales will suffer.  But, there is a thin line between “conscious parallelism” and price fixing.  A communication to customers such as this may be the hook to suggest sellers have crossed the line:  “The X industry has not been profitable and as of March 1 our prices will increase 5%.  This is in line with the increases of the other producers in the industry who are also going up.”  The company may be trying to communicate that they are only doing what others are doing to “stay competitive.”  But, referring to “industry pricing” gives the hint of collusion–enough of a hint to possibly draw an antitrust suit.  Much better to simply write:  “We have experienced increases in the cost of several major inputs.  Regrettably, we find it necessary to increase our prices 5% as of March 1.”  And there should be a document in the file explaining the need for the price increase.

To be clear, the first email does not establish that price fixing has occurred.  But, it may be enough,along with other evidence,  to give potential plaintiffs enough to file a case and result in a settlement to avoid costly litigation.  And, while no policies can guarantee a company will never be sued, an educated sales force will greatly lessen that likelihood.

The above is just one example. On January 19, 2016 from 1:00 to 2:15 pm I will be giving a presentation for Clear Law Institute on “Avoiding the Creation of “Hot” Antitrust Documents.”  I will talk about risk assessment for antitrust lawsuits and how to avoid creating the appearance of anticompetitive conduct, while documenting the pro-competitive reasons for activity in the market place.  The announcement/registration for the program is here.   There is a 35% off discount code you can use if you’d like to register: connolly35

Please check it out and see if it might be useful to your organization.   There will be slides that you may want to later  distribute as part of an antitrust compliance program.

Thanks for reading.

Current and Former Executives of an Automotive Parts Manufacturer Indicted for Roles in Conspiracy to Fix Prices – Investigation Has Resulted in Charges Against 90 Individuals and Corporations

A Detroit federal grand jury returned a one-count indictment against two executives of a Japanese automotive parts manufacturer for their participation in a conspiracy to fix prices and rig bids of automotive parts, the Department of Justice announced today.

The indictment, filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, charges Norio Teranishi, formerly of NGK Spark Plug Co. Ltd., and Hisashi Nakanishi of NGK Spark Plug, with conspiring to fix the prices of spark plugs, standard oxygen sensors, and air fuel ratio sensors, sold to DaimlerChrysler AG, Ford Motor Company, Fuji Heavy Industries (Subaru), General Motors Company, Honda Motor Company Ltd., Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., Toyota Motor Corporation, and certain of their U.S. subsidiaries.

Teranishi is the former General Manager of Sales and Vice-Head of the Automotive Component Group at NGK Spark Plug.  During the alleged conspiracy, Nakanishi served as the Managing Director of NGK Spark Plug Europe.

The indictment alleges, among other things, that beginning at least as early as January 2000 and continuing until at least July 2011, Teranishi and Nakanishi, and their co-conspirators participated in, and directed, authorized or consented to the participation of subordinate employees in, meetings with co-conspirators and reached collusive agreements to rig bids, allocate the supply, and fix the price of spark plugs, standard oxygen sensors, and air fuel ratio sensors sold to certain automobile manufacturers, in the United States and elsewhere.

“As a result of Antitrust Division’s automotive parts investigation, more than 50 individuals have been held accountable for corrupting the competitive process in this important global market,” said Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brent Snyder of the Antitrust Division’s Criminal Enforcement Program.  “The Antitrust Division will continue to vigorously prosecute those individuals who engaged in criminal antitrust violations in this vital market.”

“The criminal manipulation of the global automotive parts market through price fixing and bid rigging is a serious offense,” stated Special Agent in Charge Paul M. Abbate of the FBI’s Detroit Field Office.  “The FBI, together with the Department of Justice Antitrust Division, will continue to aggressively pursue those who seek to commit criminal antitrust violations in order to gain a competitive advantage through corruption of the global marketplace.”

NGK Spark Plug is a corporation organized and existing under the laws of Japan with its principal place of business in Nagoya, Japan.  On Oct. 8, 2014, NGK Spark Plug pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a $52.1 million criminal fine for its role in the conspiracy.

Including Teranishi and Nakanishi, 55 individuals have been charged in the government’s ongoing investigation into market allocation, price fixing and bid rigging in the automotive parts industry.  Additionally, 35 companies have pleaded guilty or agreed to plead guilty and have agreed to pay a total of more than $2.5 billion in criminal fines.

Teranishi and Nakanishi are charged with price fixing and bid rigging in violation of the Sherman Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $1 million criminal fine 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.

Today’s indictment is the result of an ongoing federal antitrust investigation into price fixing, bid rigging and other anticompetitive conduct in the automotive parts industry, which is being conducted by the Antitrust Division’s criminal enforcement sections and the FBI.  Today’s charge was brought by the Antitrust Division’s Washington Criminal I Section and the FBI’s Detroit Field Office, with the assistance of the FBI headquarters’ International Corruption Unit.  Anyone with information on price fixing, bid rigging and other anticompetitive conduct related to other products in the automotive parts industry should contact the Antitrust Division’s Citizen Complaint Center at 888-647-3258, visitwww.justice.gov/atr/contact/newcase.html or call the FBI’s Detroit Field Office at 313-965-2323.