On November 14, 2013, members of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights heard arguments regarding the effectiveness of current cartel prosecution and punishment strategies in deterring cartel conduct. In her opening remarks, Senator Amy Klobuchar, chair of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, called price-fixing the most egregious form of antitrust violations. “Cartels have no other purpose than to rob consumers,” Klobuchar stated.
At the hearing, William Baer, assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division, highlighted the Division’s efforts to prosecute cartels over the last decade. Under the Antitrust Division’s recent aggressive enforcement efforts, the DOJ obtained record fines and jail time against corporations and individual corporate officers for cartels conduct. In 2013, the DOJ obtained $1.02 billion in fines and filed 50 cases against cartels, including charges against 21 corporations and 34 individuals and the imposition of 28 prison terms averaging two years. This presents a marked increase in the eight-month average jail term imposed against Antitrust Division defendants in the 1990s.
Over the past five years, the DOJ has, on average, obtained over $850 million in fines from cartels. Baer noted the success of the DOJ’s leniency program, as well as cooperation with state and federal agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in investigating cartels. The leniency program has increased the rate of self-disclosure by providing both corporations and individuals with incentives for investigating and reporting antitrust violations. The DOJ has also amped up efforts to collaborate with competition authorities in foreign countries worldwide to better coordinate cartel policies, detection efforts and investigations. As a result, the DOJ has obtained more sentences against foreign nationals, currently an average of 11 per year, as opposed to three per year in the 1990s. The DOJ recently obtained record criminal fines and jail time in prosecuting large, complex cartels involving price-fixing conspiracies in the liquid crystal television displays, air cargo and freight, and automobile parts markets.
Others testifying in front of the Subcommittee pressed the Senate to adopt stricter cartel punishments in light of the “steady stream of cartels” that they view as a persistent problem despite the DOJ’s leniency program. The panelists questioned the effectiveness of monetary penalties as a deterrent, noting that fear of jail time is only effective if individuals and corporations involved in cartels believe they are likely to be caught. They testified that steep fines and punishments may actually discourage individuals from self-disclosing violations, so a better deterrent may be imposing bans on corporations and individuals convicted of cartel violations, which would prevent them from conducting business in certain markets or preclude them from serving on boards or in other corporate functions.
As the DOJ, in conjunction with other federal agencies, continues to vigilantly investigate and prosecute cartels, individuals and corporations should evaluate policies and internal compliance measures in consideration of federal and state antitrust laws.