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Steven Vaughn focuses his practice on antitrust litigation and class action defense. Steven has a strong background in economics and both civil and criminal government investigations. Read Steven Vaughn's full bio. 

Q4 UPDATE: OVERVIEW OF CARTEL INVESTIGATIONS

Although 2018 saw guilty pleas and new indictments in several ongoing Department of Justice (DOJ) investigations, the year finished by continuing a downward trend in antitrust enforcement. DOJ’s criminal and civil fines in 2018 ended around $400 million—well short of the billion-dollar plus highs in 2014 and 2015, during the height of the auto parts and foreign exchange investigations. EU fines ended at €800 million, which was less than in 2017 and less than one fourth of the amount of fines imposed in 2016.

US DEVELOPMENTS

  • The DOJ has intervened in three federal class actions in the Eastern District of Washington to express its view over the proper standard of scrutiny to apply to no-poach agreements that are at the heart of several civil suits across the country. While a longer, more formal statement from the DOJ is expected soon, it appears that the DOJ will argue that the rule of reason should apply to most if not all of these lawsuits.
  • The DOJ revealed a new investigation into the bid rigging of fuel-supply contracts for US armed forces abroad. Three South Korea-based companies agreed to plead guilty to criminal charges and to pay $82 million in criminal fines for their involvement in a decade-long bid-rigging conspiracy that targeted contracts to supply fuel to United States Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force bases in South Korea.
  • Two former Deutsche Bank traders urged a Manhattan federal judge in December 2018 to reverse their convictions for rigging the London Interbank Offered Rate (Libor) and to dismiss the charges against them. Prosecutors obtained the convictions in October 2018 by arguing that the two traders had conspired with the bank’s Libor submitters to skew the lending benchmark to benefit their derivative trades. In December, the pair argued that prosecutors obtained that conviction by lying to the court and the jury and by hiding evidence from defense attorneys throughout the case.
  • Two executives pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the DOJ’s investigation into price fixing in the freight-forwarding industry.
  • While the DOJ’s investigation into price fixing of online promotional products appeared to slow, in November 2018, the DOJ announced new charges against another online promotional products company and its executive for conspiring to fix prices for customized promotional products, including wristbands, lanyards, temporary tattoos and buttons between May 2014 and June 2016.
  • The DOJ’s investigation into bid rigging of public real estate foreclosure auctions continues, as additional charges and guilty pleas continue to roll in.
  • Following up on an indictment from 2015, the DOJ obtained a plea agreement from an art dealer in the UK for agreeing with its competitors on Amazon Marketplace and elsewhere to fix the price of art posters sold online to customers in the US. The defendant agreed to pay a criminal fine of $50,000, plus fees, and agreed to a recommended sentence between 12 and 60 months.

EU DEVELOPMENTS

  • In November 2018, the Commission opened an investigation to determine whether agreements between booking system providers and airlines and travel agents distorts competition.
  • In December 2018, the Commission sent Statement of Objections to banks involved in trading US Dollar supra-sovereign, sovereign and agency bonds.

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Overview of Current Cartel Investigations

Although the third quarter of 2018 saw guilty pleas and new indictments in several current Department of Justice (DOJ) investigations, 2018 continues a downward trend in antitrust enforcement. At its current pace, DOJ’s annual 2018 fines will end around $300 million—well short of the billion-dollar plus highs in 2014 and 2015, during the height of the auto parts and foreign exchange investigations. The same downward trends exists in the EU, where the European Commission did not render any cartel decisions in the third quarter of 2018. Nonetheless, in a sign of things to come, the Commission took significant procedural steps in the ethanol benchmarks and car emissions cases.

US Developments

  • We learned of two new DOJ investigations in the third quarter. First, two executives were arrested on charges of fixing prices of freight forwarding services of containerized goods destined for international shipping. This investigation appears to be distinct from the DOJ’s investigation of roll-on/roll-off international shipping services for vehicles. Second, a foam maker stated in its July 2018 complaint against several chemical companies that the DOJ is investigating the polyurethane industry. The DOJ has not announced an investigation in the polyurethane industry, but one defendant in the foam maker’s case confirmed the existence of the investigation.
  • The DOJ secured two more guilty pleas in its ongoing investigation into bid rigging of public real estate foreclosure auctions, one in Mississippi and one in Florida. Unlike the typical case involving auctions on the courthouse steps, the Florida case involved a real estate investor rigging bids in online public foreclosure auctions.
  • Eleven state attorneys general have initiated investigations into the use of “no-poach” clauses in employment contracts. The Washington State Attorney General is most active, obtaining agreements from 30 nationwide franchise chains to eliminate the practice of including no-poach clauses in their franchise contracts. While the Washington AG’s investigation first focused on fast-food chains, its investigation has since expanded into other industries.

EU Developments

  • The Commission sent a Statement of Objections to two companies in the biofuels sector for conduct concerning ethanol benchmarks. A third company is in settlement talks with the Commission.
  • In July 2018, the General Court of the EU confirmed a fine that the Commission had imposed on an investment bank for the conduct of its subsidiary in the power cables cartel on the basis of the parental liability presumption. This is noteworthy because the investment bank held less than 91% of the subsidiary’s shares.
  • In September 2018, the Commission opened an in-depth investigation into possible collusion between German car manufacturers on emissions control systems.
  • Also in September, the Commission sent a Statement of Objections to a rail company for obstructing its investigation during a dawn raid. The company provided incorrect information and deleted data from a computer. The dawn raid was part of an investigation in the rail passenger transport sector.

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The second quarter of 2018 proved to be an active one with a number of US Department of Justice (DOJ) investigations resulting in criminal charges against individual executives. However, the DOJ’s total criminal fines still fall below the highs reached in 2014 and 2015. In this period, the European Commission made one notable cartel decision, imposing fines on eight Japanese manufacturers of capacitors.

McDermott’s Cartel Snapshot presents the latest information about active antitrust investigations to inform defense representatives, in-house counsel and agency regulators of the latest compliance risks and private actions. Our highly rated team of competition lawyers has selected the most relevant US and EU cartel matters to support risk management assessments for international cartel defense and to provide insights for legal and business planning.

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On April 27, 2018, the United States Senate confirmed President Trump’s five nominees for Commissioners of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Three are Republicans: Chairman Joseph Simons, Noah Phillips and Christine Wilson, and two are Democrats: Rohit Chopra and Rebecca Slaughter. The Senate’s vote returns the FTC to a full complement of Commissioners for the first time under the Trump Administration. Of note to participants in the health care sector: the FTC shares civil antitrust law enforcement jurisdiction over the health care industry with the Department of Justice Antitrust Division, but takes the lead when it comes to the health care provider, pharmaceutical and medical device industries. Continue Reading THE LATEST: Health Care Antitrust Enforcement Remains a Top Priority for New FTC Commissioners