Hitachi Chemical Plea Agreement Part 1- Robert Connolly

Hitachi Chemical Plea Agreement: Part 1—Enhancement of Compliance Program as a Condition of Probation

CCC’s: Guest Post by Avinash Amarnath On CCI (India) Price-Fixing Decision

The Competition Commission of India is struggling to find consistency around whether parallel conduct can form the basis for finding an agreement.  This helpful post by attorney Avinash Amarnath of Vinod Dhall and TT&A explains the latest CCI decision.  I imagine the Competition Appellate Tribunal and Supreme Court of India will eventually weigh in and Mr. Amarnath will keep us posted when they do.  Here is Mr. Amarnath’s latest post:

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CCI imposes penalty of USD 38.6 million on airlines for fixing fuel surcharge

Just when one almost thought that the year 2015 would go by without a major cartel fine, the Competition Commission of India (CCI) published a decision on 17 November 2015 imposing penalties of USD 38.6 million (approx.) in total on three airlines, Jet Airways, InterGlobe Aviation (which operates under the brand ‘Indigo’) and Spice Jet. The CCI found the three airlines guilty of fixing the rates of fuel surcharge (FSC) charged on the carriage of cargo. The FSC is a component of the cargo freight charge whose primary purpose is to cover fluctuations in global crude oil prices.

The complaint was filed by the Express Industry Council of India, an industry body representing cargo companies such as DHL and FedEx. The CCI had found prima facie merit in the complaint and directed the Director General (the DG, the investigative arm of the CCI) to conduct a detailed investigation into the matter. On investigation, the DG found that although the behaviour of the airlines was not in accordance with market conditions, no evidence was found of collusion between the airlines. However, the CCI disagreed with the DG’s conclusions and found that a pattern of parallelism existed in the FSC increases by the three airlines. In particular, the CCI found that during certain periods, the three airlines had increased the FSC even when global crude oil prices had been falling. The CCI observed that no rational explanation had been offered by the parties for this parallel behaviour. Further, the CCI found that data about intended price increases may have been exchanged among airlines through common agents and other sources which reduced uncertainty about their commercial conduct. The CCI also found that although the airlines claimed that internal meetings had taken place to discuss and decide on FSC increases, no data on costs or any documentary proof was placed on record by any of the airlines to prove that such meetings had taken place. Based on the above factors, the CCI concluded that the only possible explanation for such parallel movement was that a cartel existed between the three airlines.

The most significant takeaway from the CCI’s decision seems to be a change in the evidentiary standard in cartel cases involving price parallelism and circumstantial evidence. In previous cases, the CCI has observed that mere price parallelism would constitute insufficient evidence to establish a cartel and that certain ‘plus factors’ would be needed to corroborate the price parallelism. However, in this case, the CCI seems to suggest that price parallelism alone can constitute sufficient evidence of a cartel if there is no other possible explanation for such parallelism other than a cartel This seems to be in line with the evidentiary standard established by the European Court of Justice for a ‘concerted practice’ in Woodpulp II. Although the Indian legislation does not contain a separate concept of a ‘concerted practice’ as applied in the European Union, the definition of agreement under the legislation covers any ‘arrangement or understanding or action in concert’ and it appears that the CCI’s intention is to interpret the term ‘agreement’ broadly enough to include ‘concerted practices’. It is difficult to comment on whether the test was correctly applied in this case, i.e. whether there was in fact a pattern of parallelism and no other possible explanation for such parallelism without knowledge of the complete facts of the case. The parties did argue that the parallelism was a result of oligopolistic market conditions. While the CCI notes that parallel behaviour of competitors can be a result of intelligent market adaptation in an oligopolistic market, the CCI rejected this argument in the present case by simply making a general conclusion that the only possible explanation for parallel conduct in this case was collusion without assigning any specific reasons as to why this parallelism was not the result of oligopolistic market conditions.

Whilst the principles enunciated by the CCI in this case seem to be sound, the CCI must be cautious in evaluating parallel conduct and possible explanations for the same in future cases to avoid the risk of false positives.

The full decision of the CCI is available here.

Mr. Amarnath can be reached atavinash.aba@gmail.com.

Antitrust Division Provides Guidance for an Effective Compliance Program

On Sept 16, 2015, The Antitrust Division announced that Kayaba Industry Co. Ltd., dba KYB Corporation (KYB) had agreed to plead guilty and to pay a $62 million criminal fine for its role in a conspiracy to fix the price of shock absorbers installed in cars and motorcycles sold to U.S. consumers.  The plea agreement indicated that KYB would receive credit for instituting an effective compliance program going forward.  The Division had only recently announced that it was possible for a company to get credit for a forward-looking compliance program that change the culture of the company.  This was a big and new step for the Division so there was a great deal of curiosity as to what the company did that the Division considered credit worthy.  Yesterday, the Division filed its sentencing memorandum which gives an outline of the compliance steps that KYB took.

The first thing to note is that the government praised KYB’s cooperation, noting that it cooperated early, the CEO ordered a complete and timely internal investigation, and the company has made employees and documents available that were outside the US.  I would say that early and complete cooperation is probably the most important factor in convincing the government that there has been a change in culture.   But, in the past, that alone would not earn a company any credit for a compliance program.  In its sentencing memorandum, the Division said this about KYB’s compliance efforts:

“KYB’s compliance policy has the hallmarks of an effective compliance policy including direction from top management at the company, training, anonymous reporting, proactive monitoring and auditing, and provided for discipline of employees who violated the policy.” Case: 1:15-cr-00098-MRB Doc #: 21 Filed: 10/05/15.

These steps closely follow the US Sentencing Guidelines outline for an effective compliance and ethics program:  US Sentencing Guidelines, §8B2.1. Effective Compliance and Ethics Program.

At a recent conference, Brent Snyder indicated that more pleas with credit for compliance programs are in the works and will provide a roadmap for what the Division considers an effective compliance programs.  I wrote about that in  a recent blog post (here). [Note:  There was one other plea agreement in the Forex investigation that indicated credit for a compliance program, but that sentencing memorandum has not yet been filed.  Blog post here.]

The credit for a compliance program is a welcome development. But, the current policy raises one question in my mind.  The Division has indicated that it still will not credit “backward looking compliance programs,” that is, compliance programs that have failed.  But, what if KYB had had this compliance program in place all along, yet certain managers violated it?  In that case, the company would not have received credit for the same program?  It will be interesting to see how the Division’s approach to compliance programs evolves.

Thanks for reading.

CCC’s: A Note on Some Upcoming Cartel Related Events

There are three upcoming programs that I want to pass along with a brief mention of why I think each is timely and important.   First, on September 22 the Section of Antitrust Law, Cartel and Criminal Practice Committee is hosting a teleconference on extradition.  On September 28, Concurrences is sponsoring a live program on the FTAIA.  Last up, the Georgetown Global Antitrust Symposium is on September 29, 2015.

The first program is an ABA teleconference: Antitrust and Extradition:  Where Are We Now on September 22 from noon to 1:00 pm ET.  The panel line-up is:

Moderator:  Kathryn Hellings – Hogan Lovells

Speakers:

Stuart Chemtob – Wilson, Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati LLP

Greg DelBigio – Thorsteinssons LLP

Mark Krotoski – Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP

I know Katie Hellings, Stu Chemtob and Mark Krotoski as colleagues from my days with the Antitrust Division.  They all have a great deal of experience in international cartel matters and have as good a sense as anyone, not only of where we are now, but where we might be going on extradition.  (As an added bonus, Stu Chemtob knows everyone in the world).  Aside from the real estate auction matters, the vast majority of Antitrust Division defendants are foreign fugitives.  Extradition is a hot, and key topic, in the development of cartel enforcement.

Next up is a program sponsored by Concurrences Review & The George Washington University Law School:  EXTRATERRITORIALITY OF ANTITRUST LAW IN THE US AND ABROAD: A HOT ISSUE.  The program in on Monday, September 28, 2015 from 2:30 PM to 6:30 PM (EDT) in Washington, DC.  You can click on the link for the full details, but here are a couple of highlights:

Opening Keynote Speech
Diane P. WOOD | Chief Judge, US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, Chicago

Panelists:

Douglas H. GINSBURG, Judge, US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia

James FREDRICKS | Assistant Chief, Department of Justice, Antitrust Appellate Section

After the Supreme Court denied cert. in AU Optronics and Motorola Mobility (here), the FTAIA dropped off the radar–for about 5 minutes.  But, on September 2, 2015 the Antitrust Division announced its first criminal case and plea agreement in capacitors.  The Information alleged both direct import commerce and commerce that fell within the Sherman Act because it had a “direct, substantial, and reasonably foreseeable effect” on US commerce.  If you think application of the FTAIA was complicated when applied to TFT-LCD screens, (I did), then you ain’t seen noting yet.  LCD screens were a significant component cost of the device they were assembled into.  Capacitors, however, typically cost less than a penny and there can be a couple of hundred of them in a device like a cell phone.   Direct?  Substantial?There will certainly be substantial litigation over these issues, and other FTAIA related head scratchers.  Besides capacitors, FTAIA application is being litigated in other civil cases in lower courts.  I am really looking forward to attending this conference.  I’ll try to take notes and pass them along.

Last, but not least, is the Georgetown Global Antitrust Enforcement Symposium on Tuesday, September 29, 2015. Bates White is one of the sponsors.  The Global Antitrust Enforcement Symposium is a leading forum for lawyers, policymakers, corporate executives, economists, and academics to address current issues in competition law and policy. The faculty includes current and former enforcement officials from the United States, European Commission, Germany, France, Brazil and Mexico.  This forum is often the place to hear about significant policy developments.  I recall last year it was in this forum that Bill Baer first hinted at a change in the Antitrust Division’s policy with regard to compliance programs (here).  Then, in the FOREX investigation, the Division for the first time, gave  company credit in a plea agreement for a compliance efforts (here).  Maybe there will be interesting news this time, if not from the Antitrust Division, perhaps from enforcers from other major jurisdictions.

Thanks for reading.

CCC’s: Kenneth Davidson: Enforcing Antitrust– Leniency, Consumer Redress, and Disgorgement

With his permission, I am gladly reposting a very interesting commentary written by Kenneth M. Davidson, a Senior Fellow at the American Antitrust Institute on September 1, 2015

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Over the past 25 years “leniency” policies pioneered by the Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice have been enormously successful in identifying and prosecuting unlawful cartel behavior.  That success has been replicated by competition agencies in the European Union and elsewhere.  The key to its success has been to offer immunity to the first cartel member that provides the competition agency with evidence that the cartel exists.  The leniency program has led to billions of dollars in fines and imprisonment in the United States of executives of corporations that participated in the cartel.  Notwithstanding these impressive results, I think the effectiveness of competition law needs to be enhanced by a general adoption of policies that require antitrust violators to disgorge all ill-gotten gains earned from anticompetitive actions.

The need for disgorgement is indicated by some perplexing results that have followed the implementation of leniency program.  Greater enforcement of the laws against cartels and other anticompetitive practices ought, in theory, result in the formation of fewer cartels.  Yet enforcement statistics indicate that the number of cartels identified appears to be rising and, even more surprisingly, cartels that have been successfully prosecuted appear to be reforming at an increasing rate.  Professor John Connor, my colleague at the American Antitrust Institute, probably the leading expert on cartel enforcement, published a study in 2010, Recidivism Revealed, which provides data indicating that the rate at which prosecuted violators recreate cartels has continued to rise.

Connor and another AAI colleague, Professor Robert Lande, who have together tracked antitrust penalties and recoveries from private antitrust actions, have suggested the answer to this seeming anomaly is that fines, imprisonment, and private recoveries are not high enough to deter the formation or reformation of cartels.  Their article, Cartels as Rational Business Strategy: Crime Pays, concludes that the formation of illegal cartels will be deterred only if the penalties exceed the anticompetitive profits times the chances of getting caught.  This “optimal deterrence” theory requires that if a company earns a million dollars in unlawful profits and calculates that it has a fifty percent chance of being caught the fine ought to be two million dollars.  Lande and Connor estimate that the total recoveries from public and private antitrust actions is less than 21 percent of the amount needed to deter violations.

I have argued in past Commentaries on the AAI website that I doubt that cartel members can or do make these kinds of calculations when secretly setting up their cartels.  More important, my reading of the history of law enforcement is that punishment alone is unlikely to suppress crime.  Even drastic actions like cutting off the hands of pickpockets do not appear to have been successful.  Even if higher civil and criminal penalties were more effective, they do nothing to compensate those who have suffered from antitrust violations.

A study published this summer by Professor Andreas Stephan, Public Attitudes to Price Fixing, surveyed attitudes about cartels in the US, UK, Germany and Italy indicates that public support for antitrust enforcement is less than optimal, at least in the US.  Price fixing between supposed competitors was an ideal object for this study.  A majority of those surveyed understood that the cartel agreement is likely to lead to higher prices than the individual companies would charge.  A substantial majority of the public in all four countries believed that price fixing is harmful to consumers on the grounds that it secretly raises prices to consumers, is dishonest and unethical.  Curiously, the majority view that price fixing is harmful was substantially higher in the three European countries than it was in the US.  Even stranger, was the finding that a majority of the public in Europe believed that price fixing is illegal whereas only forty percent of the American public believes that price fixing is unlawful.

Given that antitrust was invented in the US, the billions collected in fines by the Antitrust Division, and the imprisonment of corporate executives by US courts, it is hard to believe that only a minority of Americans believe that price fixing – the most blatant antitrust violation – is unlawful. How might this disparity be explained? One might guess that the higher rates of belief in Europe that antitrust law exists and outlaws price fixing is a fluke based on timing of high profile cases brought by the EU.  I suggest a different reason.  US antitrust law has become so complicated and so infused with law and economics jargon that it is more difficult for the American public to understand what the courts prohibit under a tangled web of laws that are written in arcane language.  The EU treaty adopts American antitrust principles but states them in shorter clearer language.

Two other factors may help explain why there seems to be greater awareness of competition law in Europe.  The first is that EU competition law is seen as a way for Europe to defend its industries from anticompetitive practices by American companies.  The second is that since 2010, the EU has passed a series of regulations that are designed to compensate individuals for anticompetitive overcharges and for losses of profits due to anticompetitive practices.  These regulations have been widely covered in the media.  The EU regulations are intended to make it easier for individuals and companies to prove they have been harmed by antitrust violations and to collect for the damages they have suffered. A person or group need not present separate proof of a violation of EU competition law if the EU or a national competition agency has found the company to have violated the law.  Injured parties need only show their harm.  Furthermore consumers can sue a manufacturing cartel even if they bought from retailers who charged higher prices because the manufactures sold to retailers at fixed higher prices.  In addition, injured parties are entitled to full payment for their losses plus interest on the amounts they were overcharged.

None of this is available under US law.  Moreover, US courts have created numerous procedural hurdles over the past 30 years that make it considerable more difficult for individuals and groups of consumers to collect for damages they have suffered from antitrust violations.  The only significant recent US legislation designed to help those injured by antitrust violations is ACPERA.  This 2004 law helps plaintiffs prove their antitrust claims if the government has already established the violation.  The help to plaintiffs that are entitled to from violators who have obtained leniency comes at a cost to plaintiffs.  They must forgo their right to treble damages if the already proven violator cooperates with the plaintiffs in providing evidence of the violation.  So far this law has not provided much help to plaintiffs. As a result of procedural obstacles created by courts, there are a declining number of cases where US businesses, groups or individuals are able to collect when they are victims of antitrust violations.

The differences in recovery of damages for anticompetitive practices in the US and the EU should not be overstated.  Professors Lande and Connor estimate that, despite procedural hurdles, Americans recover more compensation through private actions than the government obtains from civil and criminal penalties.  Although European law that encourages member states to allow class actions, it does not require their member states to allow lawsuits that combine the claims of all persons harmed by anticompetitive practices.  Nor does European law allow lawyers to be paid contingency fees.  The effect of these two provisions severely undercuts the viability of lawsuits to compensate individuals who have been harmed by competitive violations.  American experience demonstrates that the large expenses of antitrust lawsuits are generally financed by American lawyers who expect to recover those expenses and be compensated by payment of a portion of the recovery of a successful lawsuit.  However due to court created barriers American consumer redress actions have ceased to be a formidable enforcement and consumer protection avenue.   Thus it seems that the European public has more grounds for optimism than do Americans.  The new rights to compensation for antitrust injuries promised by the EU provide hope that, despite clear flaws, their implementation will become effective in contrast to claims in American courts where decisions seem to promise only more difficulties in obtaining redress for those harmed by anticompetitive actions.

The procedural problems in the US and EU with recovery for damages through individual or class actions could be solved by aggressive implementation of disgorgement remedies.  Disgorgement is a long-established doctrine that empowers US courts to require violators of federal law, including the antitrust laws, to pay out all of the ill-gotten gains obtained from their violations.  Disgorgement focuses on the total amount of unlawful gains rather than proof by plaintiffs demonstrating their individual harms. Stripping the violators of their ill-gotten gains would be a substantial improvement in deterrence.  As noted above, Professors Connor and Lande’s extensive research indicates that under current US law the total of antitrust fines, imprisonment and private recovery is far less than the total antitrust harm created by violators whose actions have been shown to be anticompetitive.

After disgorgement, the funds can be distributed to those who can be identified as having been harmed by the violation.  This would alter the focus of public and private antitrust actions from theoretical mathematical models of “allocative efficiency” to putting money in the hands of those who have been harmed by antitrust violations.  Such payments, large and small, would make consumers and businesses aware of how much they have been harmed by anticompetitive behavior and provide the public with understandable reasons to support more vigorous antitrust enforcement.

Where the disgorgement fund exceeds the amounts that are claimed as damages, where the identities of the entities and individuals harmed cannot be fully ascertained, where the costs of distribution of damages exceeds the amounts to be distributed, disgorgement law provides a variety of ways to distribute the excess.  Under the Cy Pres doctrine the court may distribute the funds to non-profit organizations like the AAI or law school antitrust advocacy programs.  Or if it finds no suitable non-profit recipient, remaining funds can be turned over to the federal treasury.

In his law review article Disgorgement As An Antitrust Remedy, Professor Einer Elhauge asks “is it time for disgorgement to assume center stage as an antitrust remedy?”  He has a series of reasons why he believes in disgorgement.  His influential article led to broader acceptance of disgorgement remedies by the FTC in its 2012 statement on disgorgement and by the EU in its 2014 directive on Antitrust Damages.  I believe that it is time for further action to implement disgorgement in both public and private actions and to eliminate the rules that currently deny recovery for antitrust damages.  Routine recovery of full disgorgement can address much of the relative weakness of American public support for antitrust law and strengthen the EU system for compensating those damaged by antitrust violations.  Disgorgement will not eliminate the need for civil and criminal penalties for violations of antitrust law or the need for injunctions to remedy anticompetitive practices, but it will allow enforcement agencies to disentangle the questions of fairness to consumers from the kinds of penalties needed to deter antitrust violations.

Competition Commission of India fines GSK and Sanofi for Bid Rigging

Today’s guest post is by Avinash Amarnath (avinash.aba@gmail.com) of Vinod Dhall and TT&A.

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CCI fines GSK and Sanofi for bid rigging

It has been quite a while since I posted an India update on Cartel Capers. This was partly due to the fact that the CCI has been relatively quiet on the cartel front for the last few months and partly because I have also been relatively busy with merger control work (which to many often comes across as quite drab compared to a juicy cartel case!).

However, breaking this prolonged silence, the CCI recently published a decision imposing fines on GSK and Sanofi, two major global pharma players as they were found to have rigged bids in a government tender for procurement of meningitis vaccines. Each year, in around May/June, the Government of India floats a tender for the purchase of QMMV (an anti-meningitis vaccine) for the purpose of vaccinating Indian pilgrims visiting Mecca on the ‘Hajj’ pilgrimage. There are only 3 major players supplying QMMV vaccines in India – GSK, Sanofi and Bio-Med (an Indian company). GSK is the largest supplier of this vaccine in the country.

The investigation of the CCI was based on a complaint by Bio-Med and related specifically to the tender floated in 2011 where Bio-Med had not been eligible to participate due to a minimum turnover requirement of the Government of India. In sum, the CCI found that the fact that GSK and Sanofi had each quoted to supply only roughly half of the tender quantity at roughly similar prices (which were significantly higher than the prices in the previous tender) constituted suspicious parallel behaviour for which the parties were unable to offer a rational explanation. The Government had raised the tender for roughly 180,000 doses of the vaccine and GSK had quoted to supply 100,000 doses at a price of INR 3000 per 10 dose vial and Sanofi had quoted to supply 90,000 doses at a price of INR 2899 per 10 dose vial. One common explanation offered by both parties was that the parties had not been able to quote for the entire tender quantity due to the extremely tight delivery schedule set by the Government. The CCI found that this tender being an annual one which was floated by the Government roughly around the same time each year, the parties would be easily able to estimate the delivery timelines in advance. Further, the CCI found that GSK had in fact, been able to supply much larger quantities of the vaccine in relatively short timeframes in previous tenders.

The CCI found that this suspicious parallel behaviour was corroborated by several factors such as the market conditions being conducive to collusion (limited suppliers who are repetitive bidders, homogenous product and fixed demand), no significant increase in cost of production to justify the sudden increase in the quoted price and representatives of both GSK and Sanofi having visited the Government department’s office on the same date.

The CCI imposed a penalty of 3% of the average turnover which resulted in a penalty of USD 9.4 million (approx.) on GSK and USD 0.4 million (approx.) on Sanofi.

I have kept this post purely factual without giving my views as my firm (including me for a very brief period) acted for Sanofi in this case. However, I will raise a couple of questions which come to mind and may be some food for thought:

  1. Can the fact situation described above amount to parallel behaviour at all?
  2. In the absence of any direct evidence, can the CCI simply prove parallel behaviour and shift the burden on the parties to provide a rational explanation, failing which a finding of collusion is to necessarily flow?
  3. What is the strength of the corroborative evidence relied upon by the CCI in this case?

The full order of the CCI is available athttp://www.cci.gov.in/May2011/OrderOfCommission/27/262013.pdf

Robert E. Connolly Launches New Blog: “Cartel Capers:” http://cartelcapers.com.

Robert E. ConnollyGeyer Gorey Partner Robert E. Connolly Announces the Debut of A New Blog: “Cartel Capers:” http://cartelcapers.com.

Robert Connolly recently joined GeyerGorey LLP as a partner in its Washington DC office. As with other GeyerGorey “former feds,” Mr. Connolly was a career federal prosecutor in the Antitrust Division. He was Chief of the Middle Atlantic Office of the Antitrust Division from 1994 until early 2013. Mr. Connolly has just launched his blog, Cartel Capers.

While at the Division, and particularly as a senior manager as Chief, Mr. Connolly had a seat at the table as the Division developed and implemented its successful leniency program.   He also had input on all major aspects of policy and procedure in the criminal program such as investigative strategies, charging decisions, trial game plans, sentencing policy issues, and extradition.   Since leaving the Division, Mr. Connolly has been a prolific author writing a number of articles for the ABA Criminal Cartel and Procedure committee, Mlex and Law 360. He has been quoted on cartel issues in Forbes, BusinessWeek, and various trade publications that focus on antitrust. He has decided to try his hand at blogging to provide more real time news, insight and analysis.

The blog, Cartel Capers, will provide current news in the cartel world. The focus will be on matters concerning the Antitrust Division, US Department of Justice, but will also cover major cartel related developments in the civil arena as well as worldwide. Besides reporting current developments, the aim of the blog is to provide insight and perspective from someone who worked at a high level in the Division for most of his career. The blog will analyze what the Division said, and what it did not say; what the Division did, and what it did not do—and what the Division is likely to do in the future. In short, the blog is intended to provide a behind the scenes look at the cartel world based on both personal experience and current contacts in the enforcement and broader antitrust community.

The blog will be enriched by contributions from other career DOJ prosecutors now at GeyerGorey. Hays Gorey, Joan Marshall and Brad Geyer will contribute both as editors and guest bloggers. Each has prosecuted a variety of high profile cartel cases and related violations in their long careers with the Division.

Please give Cartel Capers a try. Hopefully you will benefit form reading the blog and look forward to new entries. Also, any feedback or suggestions to make the blog more useful are most welcome. Cartel Capers: http://cartelcapers.com.

DLA Piper’s Robert Connolly pens MLEX article regarding “The DOJ Antitrust Division’s policy on independent compliance monitors: is it misguided?”

Friend of the Firm, Robert Connolly, former Chief of the Philadelphia Field Office of the Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice, now resident in DLA Piper’s Philadelphia Office last week penned an important contribution for MLEX regarding DOJ’s evolving policy regarding compliance monitors:  “The DOJ Antitrust Divsion’s policy on independent compliance monitors: is it misguided?”

 

***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.