Overview of Current Cartel Investigations
Antitrust enforcement remained active in 2017, with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) pursuing both new and long-developed investigations. However, total fines obtained by the DOJ declined sharply from recent years as the automotive parts and foreign exchange investigations wound down. At the end of 2017, and the start of 2018, the European Commission handed down decisions in a number of significant antitrust cartel investigations related to air freight, trucks, maritime carriers and several automotive parts.
- In November 2017, an Ohio jury acquitted two Japanese firms, Tokai Kogyo Co. Ltd. and Green Tokai Co. Ltd., of price fixing and bid rigging charges in the market for automotive body seals. This was the DOJ’s first auto parts case to go to trial and a potential bellwether for the attitude that US juries might take toward foreign defendants. The defense focused on evidence of intense price competition for the allegedly rigged components during the conspiracy period.
- In the capacitors investigation, US District Court Judge James Donato of the Northern District of California caught the attention of the industry when he refused to accept the guilty pleas of three companies to horizontal price-fixing. According to the court, these negotiated corporate pleas were not sufficient to penalize the companies and prevent future price fixing agreements. The court called one agreement a “sweetheart deal” and stated that another negotiated plea was merely a “drop in the bucket.” Although the court later accepted open-ended “B” pleas in those cases, the court’s rejection of the traditional fixed-sentence “C” plea agreements may signal less deference to agencies with respect to negotiated plea agreements with companies.
- Over the past few years, the DOJ has exercised greater leniency in sentencing defendants who claim an inability to pay a large fine, hewing to the principle that punishment and deterrence should not put companies out of business. For example, in the packaged seafood investigation, DOJ gave Bumble Bee Foods a $111 million reduction in penalty for inability to pay and cooperation credit. It is likely that the DOJ will continue to evaluate fines in light of companies’ ability to pay them, including companies in smaller industries such as the promotional products cases. However, companies should be aware that judges may not always accept inability-to-pay defenses. Notably, one reason for Judge Donato’s rejection of the capacitor guilty pleas related to his skepticism about one company’s assertion that it was unable to pay a higher fine.
- The European Commission continues its investigation into anticompetitive behavior in the automotive parts sector. Most recently, the Commission imposed fines on manufacturers of occupant safety systems, spark plugs and braking systems, totaling €185 million. In each case, the companies agreed to settle with the Commission, which means that they received a fine reduction in exchange for admitting to the Commission’s objections.
- The Commission imposed a record fine on a truck manufacturer which had decided not to settle with the Commission, contrary to the other participants in the cartel.
- The Commission re-adopted its previous decision to impose fines on air cargo carriers, after its decision had been annulled by the General Court of the EU.
- The European Commission confirmed in July 2017 that German car makers Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche, BMW and Daimler are “undergoing examination by the Commission.” The companies are believed to have cooperated on how to meet emissions standards for diesel vehicles. Volkswagen and Daimler are believed to have been among the first companies to cooperate with the European Commission. In October 2017, the Commission confirmed that it had carried out inspections at the premises of car manufacturers in Germany.