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.

Third Ocean Shipping Executive Pleads Guilty to Price Fixing on Ocean Shipping Services for Cars and Trucks

An employee of Japan-based Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha (NYK) pleaded guilty today and was sentenced to 15 months in a U.S. prison for his involvement in a conspiracy to fix prices, allocate customers and rig bids of international ocean shipping services for roll-on, roll-off cargo, such as cars and trucks, to and from the United States and elsewhere, the Department of Justice announced today.

According to the one-count felony charge filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland in Baltimore on Jan. 16, 2015, Susumu Tanaka, who was a manager, deputy general manager and general manager in NYK’s car carrier division, conspired to allocate customers and routes, rig bids and fix prices for the sale of international ocean shipments of roll-on, roll-off cargo to and from the United States and elsewhere, including the Port of Baltimore.  Tanaka participated in the conspiracy from at least as early as April 2004 until at least September 2012.

Roll-on, roll-off cargo is non-containerized cargo that can be both rolled onto and off of an ocean-going vessel.  Examples of this cargo include new and used cars and trucks and construction and agricultural equipment.

“Today’s sentence is another step toward bringing to justice the perpetrators of this long-running cartel and restoring competition to the ocean shipping industry,” said Bill Baer, Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division.  “But this investigation is far from over.  We are continuing our efforts to hold accountable the companies and executives who seek to maximize profits through illegal, anticompetitive means.”

Pursuant to the plea agreement, which the court accepted today, Tanaka was sentenced to serve a 15-month prison term and pay a $20,000 criminal fine for his participation in the conspiracy.  In addition, Tanaka has agreed to assist the department in its ongoing investigation into the ocean shipping industry.

Tanaka was charged with a violation of the Sherman Act, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $1 million criminal fine for an individual.  The maximum fine 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 sentence is the third against an individual in the division’s ocean shipping investigation, and the first against an individual from NYK.  Three corporations have agreed to plead guilty and to pay criminal fines totaling more than $136 million, including NYK, which has agreed to pay a criminal fine of $59.4 million, pending court approval.

This plea agreement is the result of an ongoing federal antitrust investigation into price fixing, bid rigging and other anticompetitive conduct in the international roll-on, roll-off ocean shipping industry, which is being conducted by the Antitrust Division’s Washington Criminal I Section and the FBI’s Baltimore Field Office, along with assistance from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Internal Affairs, Washington Field Office/Special Investigations Unit.  Anyone with information in connection with this investigation is urged to call the Antitrust Division’s Washington Criminal I Section at 202-307-6694, visit www.justice.gov/atr/contact/newcase.html or call the FBI’s Baltimore Field Office at 410-265-8080.

Second Ocean Shipping Executive Pleads Guilty to Price Fixing on Ocean Shipping Services For Cars and Trucks

A former executive of Japan-based Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha Ltd. (K-Line) pleaded guilty today and was sentenced to 14 months in a U.S. prison for his involvement in a conspiracy to fix prices, allocate customers and rig bids of international ocean shipping services for roll-on, roll-off cargo, such as cars and trucks, to and from the United States and elsewhere, the Department of Justice announced today.

According to the one-count felony charge filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland in Baltimore on Dec. 29, 2014, Takashi Yamaguchi, who was a general manager and executive officer in K-Line’s car carrier division, conspired to allocate customers and routes, rig bids and fix prices for the sale of international ocean shipments of roll-on, roll-off cargo to and from the United States and elsewhere, including the Port of Baltimore.  Yamaguchi participated in the conspiracy from at least as early as July 2006 until at least April 2010.

Roll-on, roll-off cargo is non-containerized cargo that can be both rolled onto and off of an ocean-going vessel.  Examples of this cargo include new and used cars and trucks and construction and agricultural equipment.

“Today’s sentencing is another step in our efforts to hold executives accountable for raising the cost of shipping cars, trucks and other equipment to and from the United States,” said Bill Baer, Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division.  “We will continue to pursue the corporations and executives whose illegal agreements have harmed American consumers.”

Pursuant to the plea agreement, which was accepted by the court today, Yamaguchi was sentenced to serve a 14-month prison term and pay a $20,000 criminal fine for his participation in the conspiracy.  In addition, Yamaguchi has agreed to assist the department in its ongoing investigation into the ocean shipping industry.

Yamaguchi was charged with a violation of the Sherman Act, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $1 million criminal fine for an individual.  The maximum fine 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 sentence is the second imposed against an individual in the division’s ocean shipping investigation.  Previously, three corporations have agreed to plead guilty and to pay criminal fines totaling more than $136 million, including Yamaguchi’s employer K-Line, which was sentenced to pay a criminal fine of $67.7 million in November 2014.  Another K-Line executive was sentenced one week ago by the court in Baltimore.

Today’s plea agreement is the result of an ongoing federal antitrust investigation into price fixing, bid rigging and other anticompetitive conduct in the international roll-on, roll-off ocean shipping industry, which is being conducted by the Antitrust Division’s Washington Criminal I Section and the FBI’s Baltimore Field Office, along with assistance from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Internal Affairs, Washington Field Office/Special Investigations Unit.  Anyone with information in connection with this investigation is urged to call the Antitrust Division’s Washington Criminal I Section at 202-307-6694, visit www.justice.gov/atr/contact/newcase.html or call the FBI’s Baltimore Field Office at 410-265-8080.

MINEBEA CO. LTD. AGREES TO PLEAD GUILTY AND PAY A $13.5 MILLION

WASHINGTON — Minebea Co. Ltd., a small sized bearings manufacturer based in Nagano, Japan, has agreed to plead guilty and to pay a $13.5 million criminal fine for its role in a conspiracy to fix prices for small sized ball bearings sold to customers in the United States and elsewhere, the Department of Justice announced today.

According to a one-count felony charge filed today in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio in Cincinnati, Minebea conspired to fix the prices of small sized ball bearings in the United States and elsewhere.  In addition to the criminal fine, Minebea has agreed to cooperate in the department’s ongoing investigation.  The plea agreement is subject to court approval.

According to the charge, Minebea and its co-conspirator discussed and agreed upon prices to be submitted to small sized ball bearings customers.  Minebea’s participation in the conspiracy lasted from at least as early as early-to-mid 2008 and continued until at least October 2011.

“Because of the unlawful price-fixing by the defendant and its co-conspirators, American businesses paid more for small-sized bearings than they otherwise would,” said Bill Baer, Assistant Attorney General of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division.  “Working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and our other law enforcement partners, the Antitrust Division will continue our efforts to ensure American businesses and consumers benefit from competitive markets.”

“Any agreement that restricts price competition violates the law,” said U.S. Attorney Carter Stewart of Southern District of Ohio.  “We will continue to work to protect consumers’ right to free and open competition.”

Bearings are used in industry in numerous products to reduce friction and help parts roll smoothly past one another; they “bear” the load.  Small sized ball bearings are those ball bearings whose outside diameter is 26 millimeters or less.

Minebea is charged with price fixing in violation of the Sherman Act, which carries a maximum penalty of a $100 million criminal fine for corporations.  The maximum fine 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.

The charge today is the result of an ongoing federal antitrust investigation into price fixing, bid rigging and other anticompetitive conduct in the bearings industry, which is being conducted by the Antitrust Division’s Chicago Office and the FBI’s Cincinnati Field Office.  Anyone with information on price fixing, bid rigging and other anticompetitive conduct related to the bearings industry should contact the Antitrust Division’s Citizen Complaint Center at 1-888-647-3258, visit www.justice.gov/atr/contact/newcase.html, or call the FBI’s Cincinnati Field Office at 513-421-4310.

OCEAN SHIPPING EXECUTIVE PLEADS GUILTY TO PRICE FIXING ON

Executive Agrees to Serve 18 Months in U.S. Prison

WASHINGTON — An executive of Japan-based Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha Ltd. (K-Line) pleaded guilty today and was sentenced to 18 months in a U.S. prison for his involvement in a conspiracy to fix prices, allocate customers and rig bids of international ocean shipping services for roll-on, roll-off cargo, such as cars and trucks, to and from the United States and elsewhere, the Department of Justice announced today.

According to the one-count felony charge filed today in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland in Baltimore, Hiroshige Tanioka, who was at various times an assistant manager, team leader and general manager in K-Line’s car carrier division, conspired to allocate customers and routes, rig bids and fix prices for the sale of international ocean shipments of roll-on, roll-off cargo to and from the United States and elsewhere, including the Port of Baltimore. Tanioka participated in the conspiracy from at least as early as April 1998 until at least April 2012.

Roll-on, roll-off cargo is non-containerized cargo that can be both rolled onto and off of an ocean-going vessel.  Examples of this cargo include new and used cars and trucks and construction and agricultural equipment.

“For more than a decade this conspiracy has raised the cost of importing cars and trucks into the United States,” said Assistant Attorney General Bill Baer for the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division.  “Today’s sentencing is a first step in our continuing efforts to ensure that the executives responsible for this misconduct are held accountable.”

Today’s sentence was the first to be imposed against an individual in the division’s ocean shipping investigation.  Previously, three corporations have agreed to plead guilty and to pay criminal fines totaling more than $136 million, including Tanioka’s employer K-Line, which was sentenced to pay a criminal fine of $67.7 million in November 2014.

Pursuant to the plea agreement, which was accepted by the court today, Tanioka was sentenced to serve an 18-month prison term and pay a $20,000 criminal fine for his participation in the conspiracy.  In addition, Tanioka has agreed to assist the department in its ongoing investigation into the ocean shipping industry.

Tanioka was charged with a violation of the Sherman Act, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $1 million criminal fine for an individual.  The maximum fine 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 plea agreement is the result of an ongoing federal antitrust investigation into price fixing, bid rigging and other anticompetitive conduct in the international roll-on, roll-off ocean shipping industry, which is being conducted by the Antitrust Division’s Washington Criminal I Section and the FBI’s Baltimore Field Office, along with assistance from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Internal Affairs, Washington Field Office/Special Investigations Unit.  Anyone with information in connection with this investigation is urged to call the Antitrust Division’s Washington Criminal I Section at 202-307-6694, visit www.justice.gov/atr/contact/newcase.html or call the FBI’s Baltimore Field Office at 410-265-8080.

Georgia Real Estate Investors Plead Guilty to Bid Rigging and Fraud at Public Foreclosure Auctions

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

Separate felony charges were filed against Mohammad Adeel Yoonas and Kevin Shin on Dec. 23, 2014, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia in Atlanta.  According to court documents, from at least as early as April 2008 until at least March 2012, Yoonas conspired with others not to bid against one another, but instead designated a winning bidder to obtain selected properties at public real estate foreclosure auctions in Gwinnett County, Georgia.  Yoonas was also charged with a conspiracy to use the mail to carry out a scheme to fraudulently acquire titles to selected Gwinnett County properties sold at public auctions, to make and receive payoffs and to divert money to co-conspirators that would have gone to mortgage holders, homeowners and others by holding second, private auctions open only to members of the conspiracy.  The department said that the selected properties were then awarded to the conspirators who submitted the highest bids in the second, private auctions.

Shin, according to court documents, conspired with others not to bid against one another, but instead designated a winning bidder to obtain selected properties at public real estate foreclosure auctions in Gwinnett County from at least as early as March 2009 until at least March 2012.  Shin was also charged with a conspiracy to use the mail to carry out a scheme to fraudulently acquire title to selected Gwinnett County properties sold at public auctions, to make and receive payoffs and to divert money to co-conspirators that would have gone to mortgage holders, homeowners and others by holding second, private auctions open only to members of the conspiracy.  The department said that the selected properties were then awarded to the conspirators who submitted the highest bids in the second, private auctions.

“These six guilty pleas result from the Antitrust Division’s ongoing investigation into schemes to rig public real estate foreclosure auctions in Georgia,” said Assistant Attorney General Bill Baer for the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division.  “The division will continue working with its law enforcement partners to expose cartels that harm distressed homeowners and lenders.”

The department said that the primary purpose of the conspiracies was to suppress and restrain competition and to conceal payoffs in order to obtain selected real estate offered at Gwinnett County public foreclosure auctions at non-competitive prices.  When real estate properties are sold at these auctions, the proceeds are used to pay off the mortgage, and other debt attached to the property, with remaining proceeds, if any, paid to the homeowner.  According to court documents, these conspirators paid and received money that otherwise would have gone to pay off the mortgage and other holders of debt secured by the properties, and, in some cases, the defaulting homeowner.

“The criminal actions of the defendants in this case provide a clear example of why enforcement of the Sherman Act remains necessary in maintaining a level and competitive field within commerce,” said Special Agent in Charge J. Britt Johnson for the FBI Atlanta Field Office.  “The FBI will continue to work with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division in identifying such financial schemes that attempt to take unfair advantage, to include those targeting the foreclosure auction process.”

A violation of the Sherman Act carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $1 million fine for individuals.  The maximum fine for a Sherman Act charge may be increased to twice the gain derived from the crime or twice the loss suffered by the victims of the crime if either amount is greater than the statutory maximum fine.  A count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine in an amount equal to the greatest of $250,000, twice the gross gain the conspirators derived from the crime or twice the gross loss caused to the victims of the crime by the conspirators.

The investigation is being conducted by Antitrust Division’s Washington Criminal II Section and the FBI’s Atlanta Division, with the assistance of the Atlanta Field Office of the Housing and Urban Development Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia.  Anyone with information concerning bid rigging or fraud related to public real estate foreclosure auctions in Georgia should contact Washington Criminal II Section of the Antitrust Division at 202-598-4000, call the Antitrust Division’s Citizen Complaint Center at 1-888-647-3258, or visit www.justice.gov/atr/contact/newcase.htm.

Today’s charges were brought in connection with the President’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force.  The task force was established to wage an aggressive, coordinated, and proactive effort to investigate and prosecute financial crimes.  With more than 20 federal agencies, 94 U.S. attorneys’ offices and state and local partners, it’s the broadest coalition of law enforcement, investigatory and regulatory agencies ever assembled to combat fraud.  Since its formation, the task force has made great strides in facilitating increased investigation and prosecution of financial crimes; enhancing coordination and cooperation among federal, state and local authorities; addressing discrimination in the lending and financial markets and conducting outreach to the public, victims, financial institutions and other organizations.  Over the past three fiscal years, the Justice Department has filed nearly 10,000 financial fraud cases against nearly 15,000 defendants including more than 2,900 mortgage fraud defendants.  For more information on the task force, please visit www.StopFraud.gov.

Third Company Agrees to Plead Guilty to Price Fixing on Ocean Shipping Services for Cars and Trucks

Company Agrees to Pay $59.4 Million Criminal Fine

Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha (NYK), a Japanese corporation, has agreed to plead guilty and to pay a $59.4 million criminal fine for its involvement in a conspiracy to fix prices, allocate customers, and rig bids of international ocean shipping services for roll-on, roll-off cargo, such as cars and trucks, to and from the United States and elsewhere, the Department of Justice announced today.

According to a one-count felony charge filed today in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland in Baltimore, NYK conspired to suppress and eliminate competition by allocating customers and routes, rigging bids and fixing prices for the sale of international ocean shipments of roll-on, roll-off cargo to and from the United States and elsewhere, including the Port of Baltimore.  NYK participated in the conspiracy from at least February 1997 until at least September 2012.  NYK has agreed to cooperate with the Department’s ongoing antitrust investigation.  The plea agreement is subject to court approval. NYK is the third company to agree to plead guilty in this investigation, bringing the total agreed-upon fines to over $135 million.

Roll-on, roll-off cargo is non-containerized cargo that can be both rolled onto and rolled off of an ocean-going vessel. Examples of this cargo include new and used cars and trucks and construction and agricultural equipment.

“This is another step in the effort to restore competition in the ocean shipping industry to the benefit of U.S. consumers,” said Bill Baer, Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division.  “Including today’s charges, three companies have now agreed to plead guilty to participating in this long-running conspiracy.  We are not done.  Our investigation is ongoing.”

According to the charge, NYK and its co-conspirators conspired by agreeing on prices, allocating customers, agreeing to refrain from bidding against one another and exchanging customer pricing information.  The department said the companies then charged fees in accordance with those agreements for international ocean shipping services for certain roll-on, roll-off cargo to and from the United States and elsewhere at collusive and non-competitive prices.

NYK is charged with price fixing in violation of the Sherman Act, which carries a maximum penalty of a $100 million criminal fine for corporations.  The maximum fine 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 charge is the result of an ongoing federal antitrust investigation into price fixing, bid rigging, and other anticompetitive conduct in the international roll-on, roll-off ocean shipping industry, which is being conducted by the Antitrust Division’s Washington Criminal I Section and the FBI’s Baltimore Field Office, along with assistance from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Internal Affairs, Washington Field Office/Special Investigations Unit.  Anyone with information in connection with this investigation is urged to call the Antitrust Division’s Washington Criminal I Section at 202-307-6694, visit www.justice.gov/atr/contact/newcase.html, or call the FBI’s Baltimore Field Office at 410-265-8080

Washington Gas Energy Systems Agrees to Pay $2.5 Million in Fines and Penalties for Conspiring to Obtain Federal Contracts

Washington Gas Energy Systems (WGESystems) has agreed to pay more than $2.5 million in fines and monetary penalties for conspiring to commit fraud on the United States by illegally obtaining contracts that were meant for small, disadvantaged businesses.

The court agreement was announced today by William J. Baer, Assistant Attorney General of the Antitrust Division; Principal Assistant U.S. Attorney Vincent H. Cohen Jr. of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia; Robert C. Erickson, Acting Inspector General of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA); Peggy E. Gustafson, Inspector General for the Small Business Administration (SBA), and Andrew G. McCabe, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office.

WGESystems, based in Virginia, is a wholly owned subsidiary of WGL Holdings Inc. (WGL).  WGL is the parent company for all of the corporations within the Washington Gas family.  WGESystems plays no direct role in the delivery of natural gas, and it is not a utility.  It is a design-build firm that specializes in providing energy efficiency and sustainability solutions to clients.

A criminal information was filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia charging WGESystems with one count of knowingly and willfully conspiring to commit major fraud on the United States.  WGESystems waived the requirement of being charged by way of federal indictment, agreed to the filing of the information, and has accepted responsibility for its criminal conduct and that of its employees.

In addition, as part of a deferred prosecution agreement reached with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia and the Antitrust Division, WGESystems agreed to pay a fine of $1,560,000 and a monetary penalty of $1,027,261 within five days of the approval of the agreement by the court.

According to court documents filed today, WGESystems conspired with a company that was eligible to receive federal government contracts set aside for small, disadvantaged businesses with the understanding that the business would illegally subcontract all of the work on the projects to WGESystems.  In this way, WGESystems was able to capture a total of eight contracts worth $17,711,405 that should have gone to an eligible company. These contracts, awarded in 2010, were focused on making federal buildings in the Washington, D.C., area more energy efficient.

Under the illegal agreement, the company that was awarded these government contracts was allowed to keep 5.8 percent of the value of the contracts for allowing WGESystems to use the company’s small business status to win these contracts.

“Conspiracies to violate federal procurement laws will not be tolerated,” said Assistant Attorney General Bill Baer for the Antitrust Division.  “Taxpayers deserve to have contracting processes that are fair and competitive, and fully comply with applicable laws and regulations.”

“Time and time again, we have seen government contractors abuse and exploit programs designed to help minority and socially disadvantaged small businesses,” said Principal Assistant U.S. Attorney Cohen.  “This Washington Gas subsidiary obtained millions of dollars in federal contracts by using a small business that had no ability to actually complete the contract as a front company.  Even though the subsidiary lost money on these contracts, it is required to pay $2.5 million in fines and penalties under this agreement.  This resolution should cause other contractors to think twice about playing fast and loose with federal contracting rules.”

“Cases like this are important for us to maintain the integrity of the federal contracting process,” said GSA Acting Inspector General Erickson.  “Companies cannot cheat to win federal contracts and expect to get away with their ill-gotten gains.”

“SBA’s 8(a) Business Development Program assists eligible socially and economically disadvantaged individuals in developing and growing their businesses,” said SBA Inspector General Gustafson.  “Large businesses that fraudulently seek to gain access to contracts set aside for small businesses erode the public’s trust in this important program.  I want to thank the U.S. Attorney’s Office and our law enforcement partners for their professionalism and commitment to justice in this investigation.”

“Federal government contracting laws are in place to create a level playing field for small disadvantaged businesses whose work supports our country’s diverse financial infrastructure,” said Assistant Director in Charge McCabe.  “The FBI with our law enforcement partners will investigate those companies who fraudulently abuse federal contracting laws with the purpose of increasing their company’s bottom line.”

According to the court documents, until 2010, GSA had an area-wide contract with WGESystems.  This contract enabled GSA, without competition, to enter into contracts with WGESystems so that WGESystems could provide energy management services for federal buildings.

However, starting in 2010, the federal government changed its practices.  The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act appropriated funds to make buildings in the District of Columbia and the surrounding area more energy efficient.  These funds were to be awarded through the 8(a) program, which is administered by the SBA and which was created to help small, disadvantaged businesses access the federal procurement market.

To qualify for the 8(a) program, a business must be at least 51 percent-owned and controlled by a U.S. citizen (or citizens) of good character who meet the SBA’s definition of socially and economically disadvantaged.  The firm also must be a small business (as defined by the SBA) and show a reasonable potential for success.  Participants in the 8(a) program are subject to regulatory and contractual limits on subcontracting work from 8(a) set-aside contracts.  The SBA regulations require, among other things, the 8(a) concern to agree that on construction contracts it “will perform at least 15 percent of the cost of the contract with its own employees (not including the costs of materials).”

As a result of this change, WGESystems – which was not certified to participate in the 8(a) program – faced the prospect of losing millions of dollars in revenue.

WGESystems, along with an 8(a) company it used to obtain these contracts, and others, engaged in and executed a scheme to defraud the SBA and GSA by, among other things: concealing that WGESystems, which was not eligible for the aforementioned SBA contracting preferences, exercised impermissible control over the 8(a) company’s bidding for and performance on GSA contracts; and misrepresenting that the 8(a) company was in compliance with SBA regulations pertaining to work on these contracts, including that the company’s employees had performed the required percentage of work on these contracts.  Through these unlawful efforts, WGESystems and the 8(a) company with which it conspired obtained, at least, approximately $17,711,405 in U.S. government contracts related to work at eight different federal buildings.  When these contracts were awarded, the 8(a) company’s registered place of business was the president of the company’s home, and the company had no employees who could provide design-build or contracting services.

WGESystems assisted the 8(a) company with identifying a project manager for the work at the eight buildings who was nominally an employee of the 8(a) company, but who, in actuality, took direction from WGESystems employees.  For much of the relevant period, this project manager was the only employee of the 8(a) company performing work for any of the eight projects.

Under the agreement with WGESystems, the 8(a) company was entitled to 5.8 percent of the $17,711,405 total value of the contracts, which equals $1,027,261.  To date, with all but one of the eight contracts completed or suspended, WGESystems has lost approximately $1,122,581 on the projects.  WGESystems initially anticipated a profit margin that would have equaled about $1,560,000.

Since being informed of this investigation by the Justice Department, WGESystems has taken steps to enhance and optimize its internal controls, policies and procedures.

In light of the company’s remedial actions to date and its willingness to acknowledge responsibility for its actions, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia and the Antitrust Division will recommend the dismissal of the Information in two years, provided WGESystems fully cooperates with, and abides by, the terms of the deferred prosecution agreement.

This investigation was conducted by the Inspector General’s Offices of the U.S. General Services Administration and the Small Business Administration and the FBI’s Washington Field Office.  The prosecution is being handled by Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Graves of the Fraud and Public Corruption Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, and Assistant Chief Craig Y. Lee and Trial Attorney Diana Kane, both of the Antitrust Division’s Washington Criminal I Section.

CANADIAN EXECUTIVE EXTRADITED ON MAJOR FRAUD CHARGES

WASHINGTON — John Bennett, a Canadian national, was extradited Friday from Canada on a charge of participating in a conspiracy to pay kickbacks and commit fraud at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-designated Superfund site Federal Creosote, located in Manville, New Jersey.  He was also charged with a related count for major fraud against the United States related to contracts obtained at the Federal Creosote site, the Department of Justice announced today.

Bennett was the former Chief Executive Officer with Bennett Environmental Inc., a Canadian-based company that treated and disposed of contaminated soil.  According to a felony indictment filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey on Aug. 31, 2009 Bennett carried out the conspiracy by providing kickbacks to Gordon McDonald, the project manager at the Federal Creosote site, in order to influence the award of sub-contracts at the site and inflate the prices charged to the EPA by the prime contractor.  The kickbacks were in the form of money transferred by wire to a co-conspirator’s shell company, lavish cruises for senior officials of the prime contractor, and various entertainment tickets.  The department said the conspiracy began at least as early as December 2001 and continued until approximately August 2004.

The clean-up at Federal Creosote is partly funded by the EPA. Under an interagency agreement between the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, prime contractors oversaw the removal, treatment and disposal of contaminated soil as well as other operations at the Federal Creosote site.

Bennett arrived in the District of New Jersey, in Newark, on Nov. 14, 2014 and made his initial appearance today in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey in Newark.

“The defendant is charged with thwarting the government’s competitive contracting practices,” said Assistant Attorney General Bill Baer of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division.  “This extradition demonstrates our resolve to pursue those who undermine competition.  And it is yet another example of our longstanding cooperation with our enforcement colleagues in Canada’s Department of Justice, which helps ensure that those who subvert competition in the United States and elsewhere are brought to justice.”

The fraud conspiracy that Bennett is charged with carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.  The major fraud against the United States charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $1 million criminal fine for individuals.  The maximum fine 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.

As a result of the department’s investigation, three companies, including Bennett Environmental Inc., and eight individuals have pleaded guilty.  Bennett’s co-conspirator, Gordon McDonald, was convicted on Sept. 30, 2013, on 10 counts, including the two charges pending against Bennett.  McDonald was sentenced on March 4, 2014 to a 14-year term of imprisonment.

The investigation was conducted by the Antitrust Division’s New York Field Office, the EPA Office of Inspector General and the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation with assistance from the Antitrust Division’s Foreign Commerce Section and the Criminal Division’s Office of International Affairs.  Anyone with information concerning bid rigging, kickbacks, tax offenses, or fraud relating to sub-contracts awarded at the Federal Creosote or Diamond Alkali sites should contact the New York Field Office of the Antitrust Division at 212-335-8000.

Two Executives of Japanese Automotive Parts Manufacturers Indicted for Their Role in a Conspiracy to Fix Prices and Rig Bids

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

The indictment, filed late yesterday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky in Covington, charges Hiroya Hirose an executive at NSK Ltd., and Masakazu Iwami an executive at Jtekt Corporation, with conspiring to fix the prices of bearings sold to Toyota Motor Corporation and Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America Inc. (collectively, “Toyota”) in the United States and elsewhere, beginning at least as early as 2001 and continuing until as late as July 2011.

“The division will continue to pursue executives who violate the antitrust laws,” said Assistant Attorney General Bill Baer for the Antitrust Division.  “American consumers deserve the benefit of free competition between auto parts suppliers.”

Hirose was a group sales manager in NSK’s Mid-Japan Automotive Department Office from at least as early as January 2006 until at least 2009, and a general manager in that office from 2009 until at least 2011.  Iwami was a Section Manager, then General Manager, in Jtekt’s Toyota Branch office from at least as early as 1999 until at least October 2007, and then Vice Branch Manager in that office from October 2007 until at least June 2009.

The indictment alleges, among other things, that Hirose, Iwami, and co-conspirators participated in, and directed, authorized, or consented to the participation of subordinate employees in, meetings, conversations, and communications to discuss the bids and price quotations to be submitted to Toyota in the United States and elsewhere.  Hirose, Iwami, and their co-conspirators submitted bids and price quotations in accordance with the agreements reached at these meetings.

NSK is a corporation organized and existing under the laws of Japan with its principal place of business in Tokyo, Japan.  On Oct. 28, 2013, NSK pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a $68.2 million criminal fine for its role in the conspiracy.  Jtekt is a corporation organized and existing under the laws of Japan with its registered headquarters in Osaka, Japan.  On Dec. 3, 2013, Jtekt pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a $103.27 million criminal fine for its role in the conspiracy.  Both NSK and Jtekt were engaged in the business of manufacturing and selling bearings to Toyota in the United States and elsewhere for installation in vehicles manufactured and sold in the United States and elsewhere.

Including Hirose and Iwami, 46 individuals have been charged in the government’s ongoing investigation into market allocation, price fixing, and bid rigging in the auto parts industry.  Twenty-six of these individuals have pleaded guilty and have been sentenced to serve prison terms ranging from a year and one day to two years.  Additionally, 31 companies have pleaded guilty or agreed to plead guilty and have agreed to pay a total of now more than $2.4 billion in fines.

Hirose and Iwami 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.

Yesterday’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 four of the Antitrust Division’s criminal enforcement sections and the FBI.  Today’s charge was brought by the Antitrust Division’s Chicago Office and the FBI’s Cincinnati Field Office.  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 1-888-647-3258, visit www.justice.gov/atr/contact/newcase.html, or call the FBI’s Cincinnati Field Office at 513-421-4310.