Connolly’s Cartel Capers “Auto Part Investigation Shifts Gears”

Auto Part Investigation Shifts Gears

In the last several months, the Antitrust Division has obtained indictments of a number of Japanese executives in the auto parts investigation. This is the hallmark of an investigation that is shifting gears. For the most part, but not entirely, the Division has picked the low hanging fruit with amnesty and non-prosecution agreements. It has shaken a few trees and obtained plea agreements with individuals who received substantially reduced 5K sentences in return for the plea and cooperation. Now enters the phase where individuals are indicted, either because the Division believed they were too senior to offer 5K discounts, the Division no longer needed cooperation, or because the individual declined the invitation to come to the United States and submit to US jurisdiction. Now, the investigation enters what could be likened to the “100 Years War,” depending upon the longevity of the fugitive defendant. The hostile parties keep their respective difference, with an occasional battle fought if there is an extradition or voluntary surrender.  

Yesterday Gikou Nakajima, the highest-ranking global sales executive at Takata Corp. was indicted and charged with rigging bids for seat belts sold to various car companies.  Two weeks earlier, A Japanese executive was indicted on one count of bid rigging and also for obstruction of justice in a second count. In April, an indictment was returned against one current executive and two former executives of Bridgestone Corp. for their roles in an international conspiracy to fix prices of automotive anti-vibration rubber parts sold in the United States and elsewhere.  The return of indictments signals that the Division has secured sufficient cooperation from witnesses and reviewed enough documents to be confident enough in their facts to seek indictments.  The auto parts investigation has had many facets involving over many different parts. See USDOJ Chart, Auto Parts Targeted by Conspirators:  As each phase of this investigation wraps up, additional indictments should be forthcoming.

What Happens Next?

Usually, nothing. The Division has foreign fugitives in most of its international cartel cases dating back to ADM. In most cases the indictments, and the defendants’ identity, are public. But, in some cases the indictment of a foreign national may be under seal. (In the 1980’s, the Philadelphia office indicted an Israeli citizen under seal and he was arrested entering the US. That saga of that case is another story.) But, typically, the Division will have a foreign fugitive placed on an Interpol “Red Notice” making travel precarious for that executive for the rest of his life. In most cases, the executives preserved by the Division for indictment are the most senior members of the company involved in the conspiracy. Foreign fugitive defendants will likely retire, fire their travel agent and stay in the home country. The Division will maintain the documents and other evidence needed to try the case should Interpol actually pick up the fugitive. (One Japanese executive was arrested in India and spent some time in an Indian prison before the India authorities decided they would not extradite him on “dual criminality” grounds.). From time to time, Division attorneys may even get false alarms—foreigners with the same or similar name as a fugitive being picked up and held for questioning. The Division will maintain the file on its foreign fugitives indefinitely because unless it is notified, it has no way of knowing if the fugitive is dead or alive.

Sentencing Guidelines Are A Huge Factor

The primary measure of culpability under the US Sentencing Guidelines is volume of commerce.  Not surprisingly, international cartels tend to press the outer boundaries of the maximum ten year prison sentence under the Sherman Act.  A look at the possible Sentencing Guidelines for a fugitive like Mr. Nakajima shows why there is strong incentive for him to say put in Japan. While these figures may be off slightly, if he were convicted of the charged indictment, he would be facing a possible prison sentence under the United States Sentencing Guidelines of 87- 108 months in jail:


Base Offense 2R1.1                           +12

Offense involves Bid Rigging           +1

Volume of Commerce                       +12 (based on likely commerce of more than $500,00   but less than 1 billion

Role in the Offense                           +4

Total Offense Level                           29

Guideline Range                                87 – 108 months

If a foreign fugitive voluntarily submitted to US jurisdiction and plead guilty, he would be eligible for a 3-point reduction for acceptance of responsibility with a resulting guideline range of 63-78 months. (The court would likely depart from the sentencing guidelines over the Division’s objections and impose a lesser sentence. There is, however, no guarantee that this would occur.) The longest sentence one of Mr. Nakajima’s subordinates received was 19 months. It is not likely Mr. Nakajima will ever voluntarily submit to US jurisdiction.


 Yesterday, at an event in New York, Brent Snyder, Antitrust Division DAAG for Criminal Enforcement noted “More jurisdictions are adopting criminal antitrust statutes and what that will do is that it will make extradition easier to obtain. There are going to be fewer and fewer safe havens.” Also, the Division recently obtained what it called the “first of its kind” extradition on an antitrust charge against Romano Pisciotti, an Italian national who was involved in the marine hose global conspiracy.  Once in the U.S., Pisciotti quickly agreed to plead guilty will serve a total of two years in prison with credit for the nine months and 16 days he was held in the custody of the German government pending his extradition.  The Pisciotti extradition has been widely covered. It has been noted that Germany would not have extradited Pisciotti if he were a German citizen. But there are three main takeaways from his extraction journey that are worth repeating:


  • Pisciotti was indicted under seal. Foreign executives involved in a cartel who do not have some kind of agreement with the Antitrust Division may never know whether they are a fugitive
  • Pisciotti spent nine and half months in a German prison awaiting word of whether Germany would extradite him. If Interpol picks up a foreign fugitive, even if not ultimately extradited, the process can be a significant penalty in itself.
  • The Division has used the Pisciotti extradition as a platform to express its intention to work with competition agencies worldwide to shrink safe harbors for fugitives from cartel indictments.
  • To the extent that the Division is able to secure the extradition of more foreign executives to face cartel charges, the significant reductions in sentence that cooperating foreign executives receive in 5K downward departures will likely tick upward.

A Look Ahead
The country that leads the league in most executives as fugitives from US antitrust indictments is Japan. This is true overall and in the auto parts investigation. The US has not extradited any Japanese citizens for an antitrust violation. Because Japan also makes price fixing and bid rigging a criminal offense, the issue of dual criminality may not be an obstacle (though there are certain differences in the statutes of the two countries). An extradition of an executive from Japan would be an enormous development. As noted above, a Japanese auto parts executive was recently indicted on both price-fixing and obstruction. Coincidently, the first successful extradition by the Antitrust Division involved an executive indicted on both Sherman Act and obstruction charges. When I was Chief of the Philadelphia office, we indicted a British executive, Ian Norris, on both a price fixing count and three counts of obstruction. Eventually, he was extradited only on the obstruction counts. Norris was convicted on one count and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Will the Division take a page out of the same playbook here? More developments await.

***Antitrust Monitor (Inaugural Issue): 2013 Forecast***

Renewed Vigilance Regarding Civil Enforcement; Continued Consolidation, Integration and Acceptance of Structural Changes at Criminal Program; Higher Morale

Baer’s Confirmation is unlikely to change momentum, policies or priorities.

As the Obama Administration prepares for a second term, Bill Baer has been confirmed as Assistant Attorney General.  The Antitrust Division’s informal profile photo of Baer captures his genuine humility and good will that many Antitrust Division attorneys will immediately recognize from numerous interactions with him when he represented clients as a partner at Arnold & Porter.  Baer’s easygoing nature is no contrivance and he will build on this long track record of good relations with many of the attorneys and mid-level managers at the Antitrust Division.  In addition to the normal productivity enhancements associated with having confirmed leadership at the helm, Baer’s tenure at the FTC suggests that he will implement an effective management style and push more expansive enforcement goals.  We also believe that Baer’s confirmation will improve morale (discussed more fully below) and Baer will quickly calm the ripples caused by programmatic changes that resulted in field office closure and attrition of seasoned prosecutors in the criminal program.

Continued Civil Enforcement Vigilance 

In its first term, the Obama Administration took some modest steps toward its goal of revitalizing civil enforcement.  The Division repudiated the Bush administration’s monopolization guidelines and expressed a greater willingness to challenge unilateral conduct and exclusionary business arrangements, although it only brought one monopolization case.  That the Obama administration managed a slight increase in second requests is significant since it occurred in the midst of significantly dampened merger activity caused by the financial crisis.  Perhaps the most telling metric was discovered by the Stanford Law Review (SLR Online, 65 STAN. L. REV. ONLINE 13, July 18, 2012):

“[t]he Bush Administration conducted 0.04 investigations per Hart-Scott filing; Obama conducted 0.05 investigations per filing. The Bush Administration made 0.013 second requests for information per Hart-Scott filing; Obama’s made 0.020—a 50% increase on a per capita basis.

Combine this 50% increase with a few more high profile enforcement actions that included AT&T/T-Mobile, H&R Block/TaxAct, NASDAQ/NYSE, and BCBS/Physicians Health, and the Obama administration can make a plausible case that it has already reinvigorated enforcement. During his Senate confirmation hearings in July, Baer told lawmakers that he supported Congressional action to repeal the Supreme Court’s Leegin decision which imposed rule of reason analysis for resale price maintenance where per se analysis, albeit with loopholes, had sufficed in the past.

This was music to Democratic ears in the Senate that clearly prefer more aggressive enforcement.  Senator Herb Kohl, D-Wis had expressed concerns back in July regarding Google potentially using its market power in search engine technology to favor its products and services.  Baer did not answer Kohl’s question as to Google, but he did share his enforcement philosophy generally: “being vigilant whether its Microsoft or Alcoa Aluminum about firms that are successful, and we don’t want to penalize success but to make sure it’s not improperly translated into unfair advantage in other markets, is really a key part of what antitrust is all about.”  This comment suggests a revival of monopoly leveraging, always a favorite of Democrat administrations even if the courts have been less receptive.

Will Baer lead the Division on a path to reinvigoration?  He may have provided an answer last week when he came out of the box swinging against the merger between Bazaarvoice and Powerreviews Inc. (involving online customer reviews for retailers) and Oklahoma Chiropractors (which challenged joint contracting agreements with insurers).  Of these first two significant actions of Baer’s tenure, Bazaarvoice is the one that is suggestive of reinvigoration and expansion.  The customer reviews market is evolving at rocket speed, there are challenges for the government regarding market definition and it is unclear that the barriers to entry can be all that high, particularly when well-funded behemoths like Google and Facebook seem to have position for market entry.  Notably, the company was vocal in its frustration about the “six months” it spent in negotiations with the Antitrust Division, suggesting that it could have announced this challenge prior to Baer taking the helm.  The fact that Baer announced it after he assumed his duties suggests that he sees a strong case.   Certainly it would not have escaped Baer’s attention that a decision like this would allow many to interpret this is a bullish signal that Baer plans to reinvigorate, revitalize and expand the Antitrust Division’s mission regarding civil enforcement.

At the FTC, Chairman Leibowitz, a Democrat, has served as an FTC commissioner for eight years and as chairman for almost four years. As rumors circulate regarding his likely departure, President Obama must consider potential replacements. The president could appoint a new chairman from the sitting Democratic commissioners, or he could choose someone from outside the agency. The president recently nominated Joshua Wright, a Republican, to replace outgoing Republican commissioner J. Thomas Rosch, whose term expired in September. Commissioner Rosch has indicated that he will stay in his position until the Senate confirms Wright. Although no more than three of the FTC’s five commissioners, who each serve seven-year terms, can be of the same political party, President Obama’s reelection ensures a Democratic majority at the FTC. Three of the five FTC commissioners will continue to be Democrats, and the chairman, who appoints the directors of the Bureaus of Competition and Consumer Protection, will also be a Democrat.  Accordingly, there is little reason to expect a new direction in antitrust enforcement priorities.

Continued Consolidation and Integration of Structural Changes at Criminal Program 

In the first Obama term, cartel enforcement was the Division’s top criminal priority to the exclusion of things like procurement fraud.  Almost certainly, these headwinds still exist, but time will tell whether Baer can be successful at reducing impediments to opening investigations that do not present themselves on first impression as Section 1 conduct.  Although people can argue over the causes, the Antitrust Division grand jury investigations plummeted from over 150 to fewer than 60 overall and new openings fell from 66 to 29.  Most of this came at the expense of Department’s procurement fraud program and overall anti-competitive deterrence in the area of government procurements has been grievously affected as a result.

On paper, cartel enforcement was little changed from the Bush years, although some of the Division’s numbers were marginally inflated by splitting criminal information’s in non-traditional ways and there is a widespread concern that the pipeline of “small” or “bread and butter” investigations is dry.  Airline Shipping and Auto Parts are behemoth investigations that generate a wealth of statistics, but there are 90 fewer industries that are the subject of grand jury investigations and it is impossible to measure deterrence that is not happening.

In procurement fraud, the Bush administration gave the Antitrust Division a long leash and authorized its use of resources in most allegations that affected the pre-award contract process.  As the Obama Administration strained its resources to support invigorated civil enforcement and it pushed investigative resources toward financial crimes, the administration implemented a series of policy changes that significantly reduced Antitrust Division criminal investigations.  First, it was made much more difficult for attorneys to open grand jury investigations involving matters that did not present themselves on first impression as suspected antitrust conspiracies.  Since very few antitrust criminal cases ever “present” as fully-fledged antitrust conspiracies (i.e.. evident participation by more than one competitor), investigation requests plummeted.  This effect was particularly pronounced in procurement because so few government contracts are awarded through an invitation for bid (”IFB”) process and more are awarded sole source, best value and through a request for proposal procedure where price is not the only factor.  These contracting schemes make it difficult, if not impossible as a matter of law, to use the Sherman Act to prosecute schemes affecting contracts that were not awarded through an IFB process.

Second, the Antitrust Division implemented a new, computerized tracking system that made it harder to keep open investigations that were not being actively investigated.  Because grand jury authority is held at the AAG level in contrast to the Criminal Division (delegated to the DAAG) and the United States Attorneys’ Offices (delegated to line assistants), getting grand jury investigations opened takes the Antitrust Division greater resources than other components.  Line attorneys refer to this process with dread as “the investigation to get grand jury investigative authority.”  Because the Antitrust Division has to invest greater resources into securing grants of grand jury authority and because this authority requires higher levels of approval, it is relatively unusual to reopen a grand jury investigation after closure.  In the past, keeping investigations “on the books” might allow a staff to focus on another industry or to offer help to another investigative staff on an investigation that had “gone hot.”  It also might allow another contract to be awarded or another coordinated price increase to be implemented that might significantly further the investigation.  For these and other reasons, putting open cases on the back burner became verboten and if investigations did not hit success early on they got closed.  The new case matter tracking system often pushes staffs to make tactical decisions that would be better made later after the emergence of new leads, information or evidence.  Ironically, in some respects, the Antitrust Division now pursues an operations policy that reminds line attorneys of some partner investigative agencies who years ago would have to close investigations and then struggle to reopen them if a staff determined that a three month delay was advisable.  Because case filings (i.e. stats) are the paramount metric, this provides disincentives to working any case that is at all considered “marginal” and the Division’s deterrence footprint has shrunk.

Third, by January 30, 2013, the Division will have closed four of its seven field offices, a move that has adversely impacted morale.  Although this was sold as a serious consolidation plan for which many employees would avail themselves and relocate to Washington D.C. or the remaining field offices (San Francisco, New York, and Chicago), this does not seem to be happening in any great numbers.  Using the Philadelphia and Cleveland Field Offices as examples, we count a total of three attorneys who will be staying with the Division.

Baer’s mission is not an easy one.  He joins the Antitrust Division just prior to the formal shut down of four offices and significant attrition; he joins an Antitrust Division that has fewer raw materials in the investigations pipeline.  Still we have caucused Antitrust Division attorneys who are staying with the agency and there is reason for optimism.  As word filters back that Antitrust Division attorneys who severed or retired were dealt with fairly and considerately, active concerns will dissipate and we believe Baer can drive a newly structured criminal program to fire on all cylinders by the end of this fiscal year.   There could be reinvigorated activity as a rumored new section formed in Washington D.C. (staffed by detailees and transferring attorneys) and offices in San Francisco, Chicago (currently slated for one additional expat prosecutor) and New York receive transferring prosecutors and lateral hires to stem attrition, and we expect to see vibrant competition by attorneys for investigations.  Most notably, the rumored new section in Washington D.C., that will be comprised of expats from some of the closed field offices, will see the National Criminal Enforcement Section (NCES) as its main competition and we expect fierce competition to develop creative strategies for generating new cases.

Taiwan Auto Lights Manufacturer and its California Distributor Plead Guilty in Price Fixing Conspiracy

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Companies Sentenced to Pay a Total of $5 Million in Criminal Fines

WASHINGTON — A Taiwan aftermarket auto lights manufacturer and its U.S. distributor pleaded guilty to an indictment charging them with participating in a seven-year, international conspiracy to fix the prices of aftermarket auto lights, and were sentenced today in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, the Department of Justice announced.  Aftermarket auto lights are incorporated into an automobile after its original sale, often as repairs following a collision or as accessories and upgrades.

Tainan County, Taiwan-based Eagle Eyes Traffic Industrial Co. Ltd., and its U.S. subsidiary, Chino, Calif.-based E-Lite Automotive Inc., were sentenced by U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg to pay a total of $5 million in criminal fines.

According to a one-count superseding indictment filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Francisco, on Nov. 30, 2011, Eagle Eyes and E-Lite conspired with others to suppress and eliminate competition by fixing the prices of aftermarket auto lights.  Eagle Eyes participated in the conspiracy from about July 2001 until about September 2008, and E-Lite participated from about March 2006 until about September 2008.

“The conspirators engaged in an international price-fixing scheme that undermined competition in the aftermarket auto lights industry,” said Joseph Wayland, Acting Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division.  “As a result of the division’s vigorous enforcement efforts, four corporations and five executives have been charged.”

According to court documents, the conspiracy was carried out by the two highest-ranking officers of Eagle Eyes—its chairman, Yu-Chu Lin, and vice chairman, Homy Hong-Ming Hsu— who were both charged along with Eagle Eyes and E-Lite in the superseding indictment.  The executives met with other co-conspirators and agreed to charge prices of aftermarket auto lights according to jointly-determined formulas.  The conspirators issued price announcements to customers in accordance with the jointly-determined price structure, and collected and exchanged information on prices for the purpose of monitoring and enforcing adherence to the conspiracy.  The conspirators also took steps to conceal their actions throughout the duration of the conspiracy.

In addition to today’s pleas, two other corporations have also pleaded guilty.  On Oct. 4, 2011, Sabry Lee pleaded guilty and was sentenced to pay a $200,000 criminal fine.  On Nov. 15, 2011, Maxzone pleaded guilty and was sentenced to pay a $43 million criminal fine.

Chairman Lin, who resides in Taiwan, remains a fugitive.  Vice Chairman Hsu, who was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport over a year ago, pleaded guilty on Sept. 25, 2012.  Hsu is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 22, 2013.

In addition to Homy Hsu, three individuals have also pleaded guilty.  Shiu-Min Hsu, the former chairman of Depo Auto Parts Industrial Co. Ltd., a Taiwan manufacturer of aftermarket auto lights, pleaded guilty on March 20, 2012, and is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 8, 2013.  Chien Chung Chen, aka Andrew Chen, the former executive vice president of Sabry Lee (U.S.A.) Inc., a U.S. distributor of aftermarket auto lights, pleaded guilty on June 7, 2011. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 15, 2013.  Polo Shu-Sheng Hsu, the highest-ranking officer of Maxzone Vehicle Lighting Corp., another U.S. distributor of aftermarket auto lights, pleaded guilty on March 29, 2011, served his sentence of 180 days in prison and paid a $25,000 criminal fine.

Eagle Eyes and E-Lite are charged with violating the Sherman Act, which carries a maximum penalty of a $100 million fine.  The maximum fine may be increased to twice the gain derived from the crime or twice the loss suffered by the victims, if either of those amounts is greater than the statutory maximum fine.

This case is part of an investigation being conducted by the Department of Justice Antitrust Division’s San Francisco Office and the FBI in San Francisco.  Anyone with information concerning illegal or anticompetitive conduct in the aftermarket auto lights industry is urged to call the Antitrust Division’s San Francisco Field Office at 415-436-6660 or visit