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Expect More Criminal Enforcement & What You Can Do to Minimize Your Risk

OVERVIEW

Antitrust cartel and related collusive scheme enforcement is poised to increase. Several factors support this: (1) the Antitrust Division (the Division) has a 10% budget increase for Fiscal Year (FY) 2021; (2) proposed legislation that would increase its budget by $300 million; (3) Democratic administrations have traditionally been more aggressive in enforcing antitrust laws; (4) according to the US Department of Justice (DOJ), last year the Division opened the most grand jury investigations in almost 20 years and by the end of 2020 had the most open grand jury investigations in a decade; (5) increased coordination with international law enforcement agencies, including the Division recently signing a number of cross-border agreements, maintaining active memberships in multilateral organizations dedicated to cross-border antitrust enforcement cooperation and a DOJ official recently noting they have been working at strengthening their relationships with international law enforcement agencies during the pandemic and they expect this to benefit international coordination on investigations and (6) as pandemic limitations on in-person investigative tactics subside (including search warrants and knock and talk interviews, among others), expect a return to overt tactics related to open grand jury investigations.

Historically, cartel enforcement has increased following economic downturns and substantial federal stimulus packages. For example, after the 2008 financial crisis and the 2009 Recovery Act, the DOJ filed 60% more criminal cases than in prior years. We expect this trend to continue in the wake of the unprecedented government stimulus packages passed in 2020 and 2021 and additional potential government spending on infrastructure. In addition to the increased resources, the Division has stepped up its criminal enforcement program with the creation and recent expansion of the Procurement Collusion Strike Force (PCSF), the expansion of criminal investigations and prosecutions into labor markets, higher expectations for corporate cooperators and new potential benefits for corporate entities with compliance programs addressing antitrust violations.

Below we discuss the sectors most likely to be implicated by increased criminal antitrust enforcement, the PCSF and what steps can be taken to prepare and minimize risk in this environment.

EXPECTED INDUSTRY FOCUS

Based on the trends described above and our recent experience at the DOJ, we expect antitrust criminal enforcement to focus in at least the following industries:

  • Healthcare – The DOJ remains active in this sector with its ongoing generics investigations and prosecutions and other cases relating to market allocation and labor markets. In fact, all of the charged labor market cases thus far have been in the healthcare industry. The DOJ has stated that investigations and prosecutions for violations in the healthcare sector remain its top focus and stimulus spending will likely serve to increase the DOJ’s attention to healthcare markets. Although healthcare compliance policies have often focused on other fraud and abuse issues, such as the Anti-Kickback Statute and Stark Law, compliance with antitrust laws – including for human resources – is now more critical than ever. In addition, the recently signed Competitive Health Insurance Reform Act significantly narrows the exemption [...]

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Government Amicus Efforts Show Antitrust Policy Via Advocacy

Under the administration of President Donald Trump, the US Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division has significantly ramped up its private litigation amicus program.

The Antitrust Division has filed an increasing number of amicus briefs and statements of interest at the appellate and district court levels in an effort to influence the development of antitrust law. In this articles, featured in Law 360, our authors explore how analysis of this advocacy may give us the shape of antitrust policy.

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The Latest: New DOJ Antitrust Division Policy Makes Compliance Programs More Critical than Ever

What Happened:

  • Last week, the Antitrust Division reported that it has changed its Justice Manual to state that it will consider antitrust compliance at the charging stage in criminal antitrust investigations, instead of waiting for plea negotiation or the sentencing stage.
  • Previously, the Antitrust Division had granted leniency only to the first whistleblower to come completely clean. Under the Antitrust Division’s policy reversal, this is no longer the only way to gain credit with the Antitrust Division, and the Antitrust Division will now consider if the Company has “robust” compliance programs when determining whether to bring charges.
  • With the announcement this past Thursday, the Antitrust Division published a guidance document that focuses on evaluating compliance programs in criminal antitrust investigations. This is the first time the Antitrust Division has published guidance on evaluating compliance programs in the context of criminal antitrust violations, and companies can now use this document to determine whether their compliance programs are in line with the Antitrust Division’s standards.
  • The Antitrust Division lists certain factors that Antitrust Division prosecutors should consider when evaluating the effectiveness of an antitrust compliance program. These are:
    1. The design and comprehensiveness of the program
    2. The culture of compliance within the company
    3. Responsibility for, and resources dedicated to, antitrust compliance
    4. Antitrust risk assessment techniques
    5. Compliance training and communication to employees
    6. Monitoring and auditing techniques, including continued review, evaluation and revision of the antitrust compliance program
    7. Reporting mechanisms
    8. Compliance incentives and discipline
    9. Remediation methods
  • In general, when analyzing a program, the Antitrust Division will ask whether the compliance program is well designed, whether it is being applied earnestly and in good faith, and whether it works.
  • Finally, the Antitrust Division also revised sections of its Manual on the processes for recommending indictments, plea agreements and selecting compliance monitors.

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DOJ Prosecution of Heir Location Service Providers Dismissed on Statute of Limitations Grounds

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division’s criminal case against an heir location service provider collapsed when the US District Court for the District of Utah ruled that the government’s Sherman Act § 1 case was barred by the statute of limitations. The court held that the alleged conspiracy ceased when the alleged conspirators terminated their market division guidelines, and that continued receipt of proceeds tied to the alleged conspiracy did not extend the limitations period. The court further rejected DOJ’s argument that the case should be subject to the per se standard, instead finding the alleged anti-competitive agreement amongst competitors to be unique and subject to the rule of reason.

This ruling opens a crack in the line of Sherman Act per se cases, creating an opportunity for defendants to argue for rule of reason treatment where there are novel factual issues.

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THE LATEST: Limiting Early Discovery in Parallel Criminal and Civil Cases

Companies are increasingly facing parallel proceedings involving government investigations and follow-on private litigation. These complex cases often involve competing interests between the parties that can influence a judge’s determination on discovery timing and process.

  • Private plaintiffs are incentivized to obtain as much information about the case as early as possible to support their allegations and avoid having the case dismissed on summary judgment.
  • Defendants hope to delay, or save altogether, the expenditure of potentially millions in discovery costs.
  • The government has a strong interest in preserving the confidentiality and integrity of their investigation without interference from civil plaintiffs. (more…)



DOJ Policy Updates Signal Continuity of Antitrust Program

This month, the US Department of Justice Antitrust Division revised its “Frequently Asked Questions About the Antitrust Division’s Leniency Program and Model Leniency Letters” (FAQs), with releases both before and after the new administration took office. The revisions serve as a signal that the continuity we have seen in previous years from the Antitrust Division is likely to continue. The changes include long-needed clarifications and updates since the release of the FAQs in 2008.

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Criminal Charges for Executive Stemming from Discovery Responses in DOJ Civil Antitrust Litigation

On October 14, 2016, former vice president and director of information technology of Coach USA, Inc. (Coach), Ralph Groen, entered a guilty plea for concealing and attempting to destroy documents and giving false and misleading statements under oath in a deposition during the US Department of Justice Antitrust Division’s (DOJ) investigation of a joint-venture involving Coach.

The DOJ’s complaint alleged that despite two preservation notices issued by Coach to its management team, which included Groen, Groen directed subordinates to destroy month-end backup tapes of emails and electronic records. Due to the destruction, the records were not produced to the United States during discovery. The government argued that these materials were relevant and responsive to the DOJ’s discovery requests. Additionally, Groen then falsely informed the company’s outside counsel that these materials did not exist. Groen also concealed versions of backup procedure documents that would have been relevant and responsive to the DOJ’s requests, and only provided one version. Finally, during a deposition where Groen testified as a 30(b)(6) deponent in September 2013, he lied under oath, providing false and misleading statements to the government about Coach’s document retention practices and policies. (more…)




Antitrust Enforcement under a Clinton Administration: Status Quo or Significant Change?

On Monday, October 3, 2016, Hillary Clinton issued a statement on her website titled “Hillary Clinton’s Vision for an Economy Where our Businesses, our Workers, and Our Consumers Grow and Prosper Together.”

Prior to this statement, there had been some speculation over what a Clinton presidency might bring in terms of antitrust enforcement.

Unlike President Barack Obama, former Secretary Clinton had not issued a clear policy statement on her antitrust position before Monday. She had, however, penned one short op-ed piece for Quartz, and had made some general statements on the campaign trail regarding the problems of industry consolidation. It was unclear from these prior statements whether a Clinton administration would mean any change in the current state of affairs at Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The current administration has challenged a higher percentage of mergers than any administration since before Reagan’s, but it has not significantly altered the law regarding what mergers are considered actionable.

In her Quartz op-ed, Secretary Clinton stated that “we need to fix [the system],” and decried the concentrated markets in the pharmaceutical, airline and telecommunications industries. But Secretary Clinton gave only two concrete examples of how she would “take on the fight” against “large corporations.” (more…)




Baer to Serve as Acting Associate Attorney General

On Monday, April 11, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) confirmed in a press release that Bill Baer will serve in the DOJ’s third-highest ranking position effective April 17, 2016. Baer will be stepping in for Acting Associate Attorney General Stuart Delery.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch praised Baer’s record at the Antitrust Division, noting that he has worked to obtain $400 million in relief for consumers in a case against Apple for the price-fixing of e-books, achieved a record level of fines from large banks in the LIBOR scandal, and defended consumers in industries from beer and wine to airlines and phone companies.

Baer was nominated by President Obama and was confirmed to lead the Antitrust Division in December 2012. It has been widely reported that Renata Hesse, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Criminal and Civil Operations, will take the reins upon Baer’s departure.  Hesse previously served as Acting Assistant Attorney General for a short time preceding Baer’s confirmation.

Practitioners do not expect Baer’s move to affect the Division’s track record of aggressive enforcement in recent years. On Friday, at the American Bar Association Antitrust Spring Meeting, Baer stated that the federal government has shown it is serious about stopping what it sees as competition-reducing mergers. Baer emphasized that the government is looking at the overall market as well as the individual pieces, and that lawyers should not “get lost in the weeds as you’re advising your clients about the antitrust merits.”




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