Two real estate investors pleaded guilty to participating in a conspiracy to rig bids and commit mail fraud at public real estate foreclosure auctions in Georgia. The guilty pleas, entered on Monday, January 4, are the 11th and 12th defendants charged in the investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division in its ongoing investigations into a bid rigging and mail fraud conspiracy that took place from 2009 to 2011.
The conspirators agreed not to bid against each other for specific public real estate foreclosure auctions in several Georgia counties. By declining to bid against each other, the bidders could acquire the properties at sub-competitive prices. If the public auctions were competitive and free from bid rigging, however, the same money taken by the conspiracy would have been used to pay off the mortgage, pay the debt holders of, and/or pay the owners of the properties being foreclosed upon. This case serves as a reminder that a wide variety of behaviors, including agreeing to refrain from bidding against other bidders, may be considered bid rigging. In fact, courts have held that this and other types of bid rigging—such as rotating bids, or comparing bids before submission—can be per se illegal under the antitrust laws.
This investigation also highlights the government’s ongoing commitment to root out financial crimes. In particular, the interagency Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, established by President Barack Obama in 2009, has used the “broadest coalition of law enforcement, investigatory and regulatory agencies ever assembled to combat fraud” and financial crimes. As part of this effort, the DOJ has frequently targeted conspiracies to rig bids. In fact, the agency has uncovered bid rigging in industries of all sizes, from regional conspiracies to large, nationwide conspiracies resulting in billions of dollars in fines.