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

Friday, November 3, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roofing Company Owner and Former Facilities Manager at Sierra Army Depot Indicted for Conspiracy to Defraud the United States

Friday, October 20, 2017

Government Seeks Forfeiture of Proceeds Resulting From Conspiracy

A federal grand jury in the Eastern District of California returned an indictment yesterday against two individuals for allegedly conspiring to defraud the United States, the Department of Justice announced.

The indictment alleges that Kenneth Keyes, a former facility manager at Sierra Army Depot (SIAD), and Leroy Weber, the owner of a roofing company, participated in a conspiracy to defraud the United States from as early as February 2012, and continuing through at least July 23, 2013, by obstructing the lawful functions of the United States Army through deceitful or dishonest means.

“Yesterday’s indictment demonstrates the Antitrust Division’s commitment to pursuing individuals who seek to enrich themselves by misusing federal programs at the expense of taxpayers,” said Assistant Attorney Makan Delrahim of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division.

SIAD is a United States Army facility located in Northern California.  In 2012, SIAD earmarked $40 million for construction and renovation projects at its site using contractors who qualified under the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) Development Program.  The program provides assistance and benefits to small businesses owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals.

The indictment alleges that Keyes, Weber, and other unidentified co-conspirators:

  • Recruited eligible 8(a) contractors to work as primary contractors at SIAD;
  • Represented to those contractors that Weber controlled the work and allocation of SIAD contract awards;
  • Caused prime contracts to be assigned to selected 8(a) contractors;
  • Used proprietary government pricing information to inflate contract prices for the SIAD contracts;
  • Required selected 8(a) contractors to award work to companies owned or controlled by Weber; and
  • Required a contractor to pay Weber in exchange for being awarded certain subcontracts by 8(a) contractors.

The indictment also alleges that Weber caused a company under his control to issue weekly paychecks to a relative of Keyes, and himself caused $10,000 to be paid directly to Keyes.

The purpose of this conspiracy was to enable Keyes and Weber to unjustly enrich themselves and their family members by diverting government funds intended to rebuild and repair the SIAD Army facility to themselves and their companies.

An indictment merely alleges that crimes have been committed and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  Weber and Keyes each face a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

The charges are the result of an ongoing federal antitrust investigation handled by the Department of Justice Antitrust Division’s San Francisco Office with assistance from the U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Inspector General, the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, and the General Services Administration Office of Inspector General.  Anyone with information concerning the conspiracy should contact the Antitrust Division’s San Francisco Office at 415-934-5300.

Leading Electrolytic Capacitor Manufacturer Indicted for Price Fixing

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

As a result of the government’s ongoing investigation, eight companies and ten individuals have been charged with participating in a conspiracy to fix prices of electrolytic capacitors.  Electrolytic capacitors store and regulate electrical current in a variety of electronic products, including computers, televisions, car engines and airbag systems, home appliances, and office equipment.

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

Today’s charge results from ongoing federal antitrust investigations being conducted by the Antitrust Division’s San Francisco Office and the FBI’s San Francisco Field Office into price fixing, bid rigging and other anticompetitive conduct in the capacitor industry.  Anyone with information related to the focus of this investigation should contact the Antitrust Division’s Citizen Complaint Center at 1-888-647-3258, visit https://www.justice.gov/atr/report-violations, or call the FBI tip line at 415-553-7400.

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

Friday, October 6, 2017

Investigations Have Yielded 63 Plea Agreements to Date

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

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

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

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

Today’s guilty plea is the result of the Department’s ongoing investigation into bid rigging at public real estate foreclosure auctions in San Francisco, San Mateo, Contra Costa and Alameda counties, California. To date, 63 individuals have agreed to plead or have pleaded guilty.

These investigations are being conducted by the Antitrust Division’s San Francisco Office and the FBI’s San Francisco. Anyone with information concerning bid rigging or fraud related to real-estate foreclosure auctions should contact the Antitrust Division’s San Francisco Office at 415-934-5300 or call the FBI tip line at 415-553-7400.

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

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

The sentence is a result of the division’s ongoing investigation into bid rigging at public real estate foreclosure auctions in California’s San Francisco, San Mateo, Alameda and Contra Costa counties. These investigations are being conducted by the Antitrust Division’s San Francisco Office and the FBI’s San Francisco Office.

Anyone with information concerning bid rigging or fraud related to public real estate foreclosure auctions should contact the Antitrust Division’s San Francisco Office at 415-934-5300 or call the FBI tip line at 415-553-7400.

CCC’s: Antitrust Division DAAG Delivers Remarks at International Conference

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The Antitrust Division’s Deputy Assistant Attorney General for International Affairs, Roger Alford delivered a speech on October 3, 2017 in San Paolo, Brazil. (here).  There were no groundbreaking announcements in the speech, but since it was the first delivered since Makan Delrahim took over as head of the Antitrust Division, I thought it might be of interest.

There were two aspects of the talk worth noting.  First, Mr. Alford highlighted the Division’s longstanding focus on holding individuals accountable:

As my colleagues at the Antitrust Division have explained before, “[h]olding companies accountable and assessing large fines, alone, are not the only means, or even the most effective way, to accomplish our goal of deterring and ending cartels. Individuals commit the crimes for which corporate offenders pay. Every corporate crime involves individual wrongdoing.” For that reason, we at the Antitrust Division have a long history of holding individuals accountable for antitrust crimes, and we have consistently touted prison time for individuals as the single most effective deterrent to criminal collusion.

The other item that caught my eye in the speech was the Mr. Alford’s reference to two Antitrust Division recent prosecutions:

  • In June of this year, Yuval Marshak was sentenced to 30 months in prison for participating in a scheme to defraud the U.S. Department of Defense.
  • In 2016, we tried and obtained the conviction of John Bennett for fraud against the United States as a result of a kickback scheme in the procurement of environmental clean-up services. He was ultimately sentenced to five years in prison.

These examples of “fraud prosecutions” are interesting because there is sometimes an internal debate in the Antitrust Division about whether only Sherman Act, (i.e. price fixing or bid rigging) charges should be brought or whether the Division has a broader mandate to prosecute what is sometimes called “corruption of the bidding process.” A “corruption of the bidding process” example would be bribing a procurement official to tailor bid specifications to favor one company.  In a hybrid case, there may be both a bribe of a procurement official and collusion among the favored bidders.

At times, investigation and prosecution of collusion on public contracts such as defense, roads, and schools has been a priority for the Division.  Public contracts are typically where collusion and bribery turn up–and jail sentences tend to be long.  The Division has limited resources, however, so when international cartels dominate, there may be few resources left to devote to public contracts.

The interesting thing about public contract investigations, is that the Division has some ability to be proactive in generating new investigations (as opposed to being reactive to leads/leniencies that come into the Division.)  When resources are available, the Division will often beat the bushes talking to federal agents and procurement officials looking for tips on possible worthwhile investigations.  It will be worth watching to see if there is any noticeable shift in emphasis under the new Antitrust Division leadership.

Thanks for reading.

CCC’s: For What It’s Worth…..

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Wondering what’s taking Makan so long?  Mr. Delrahim was nominated almost six months ago to head the Antitrust Division of the US Dept. of Justice.  Today, I sent the following email to Senators McConnell and Schumer:

I was sorry to hear of Senator McCain’s health problem but the lull in the health care debate provides an opportunity to hold the vote to get Makan Delrahim confirmed to head the Antitrust Division, US Dept. of Justice. I served 34 years in the Antitrust Division and I know how important Mr. Delrahim’s confirmation is to get matters in the Division moving full speed and to give guidance to the business community. The delay in Mr. Delrahim’s confirmation has generated a lot of concern that has been reported in the press. I have a widely read blog on antitrust matters [OK–that may be puffery] and I have covered also this issue (here).  Mr. Delrahim has strong bipartisan support. It would be great to show the business community that Congress can get some things done. And the dedicated career staff in the Antitrust Division would also greatly appreciate the appointment of a leader of Mr. Delrahim’s qualifications.  Thank you for your consideration.

Robert Connolly

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If you would also like to contact the Senators, they would love to hear from you!

Senator Mitch McConnell

ph: (202) 224-2541

fax: (202) 224-2499

Contact Form here

Senator Chuck Schumer 

Phone: (202) 224-6542
Fax:  (202) 228-3027

Contact Form here

CCC’s: Where’s Makan?

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In case you’ve forgotten, on June 8, 2017  the Senate Judiciary Committee voted overwhelmingly in favor of the nomination of Makan Delrahim, President Donald Trump’s pick to be the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Antitrust Division of the USDOJ.   The committee approved Mr. Delrahim’s nomination by a vote of 19-1. Once approved by the committee, the nomination should go before the full Senate.  But, Mr. Delrahim still has not been brought up for a confirmation vote in the Senate.  Sad.

This is a very unfortunate situation for the nations’ top competition law enforcement body.   The work of the Division goes on as staffs continue investigations and time sensitive decisions are still made. But, it is an added stress and drain on morale to lack leadership; especially when the leadership will likely be enthusiastically received by at least most staff members.  And, not just Mr. Delrahim awaits getting on board; the new Assistant Attorney General will bring in his team to fill out the “front office.”

The delay in confirming Mr. Delrahim has been lamented in two recent articles.  In a June 25, 2017 opinion article in The Hill, DC attorney David Balto wrote:

Delrahim is not controversial and is regarded by both Republicans and Democrats to be perfect for the job. He has a strong reputation as a pragmatist with real world experience to guide the tough enforcement decisions the division faces. Time to get Trump’s new Antitrust Cop on the Beat

Another article referred to the fact that until Mr. Delrahim is appointed and able to fill out his staff, the direction and priorities of the Antitrust Division under Trump are not known.  In a June 30, 2017 BNA Law article Liz Crampton notes:

The long-term agenda of the Justice Department remains unknown as Makan Delrahim, nominee to lead the division, is still awaiting Senate confirmation three months after President Donald Trump named him.   Justice Dept. Antitrust Division Treads Lightly Absent Leader  

Mr. Delrahim can provide the kind of guidance the business community counts on, but is currently lacking.

Here’s hoping something as non-controversial but important as Mr. Delrahim’s confirmation vote can dodge through the dysfunction in DC and get taken care of very soon.

Thanks for reading.