Procurement Collusion Strike Force
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Cartel Corner | March 2022

The US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division (Division) has continued to actively investigate and pursue alleged criminal violations of antitrust laws and collusive activity in government procurement. US Attorney General Merrick Garland noted in a March 2022 speech at the ABA Institute on White Collar Crime that the Division ended last fiscal year “with 146 open grand jury investigations—the most in 30 years.” As we near the end of the first quarter of 2022, the Division has a record number of criminal cases either in trial or awaiting trial.

In this installment of Cartel Corner, we examine and review recent and significant developments in antitrust criminal enforcement and profile what the Division has highlighted as its key priorities for enforcement. For 2022 and beyond, those priorities are—and likely will remain—identifying and aggressively pursuing alleged violations involving the labor markets, consumer products, government procurement, and the generic pharmaceutical industry.

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Kanter Signals DOJ to Follow FTC Lockstep, Calls for Substantial Change to Competition Enforcement Approach

In remarks delivered on January 18, 2022, and January 24, 2022, Jonathan Kanter, the Assistant Attorney General (AAG) for the US Department of Justice (DOJ) Antitrust Division, laid out the areas where he perceives shortcomings in antitrust enforcement. These speeches signaled that the Division, under Kanter’s direction, will take a more aggressive stance toward perceived anticompetitive conduct, echoing the changes in enforcement priorities at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Overview of AAG Kanter’s Remarks

  • Kanter intends to shape the regulatory landscape to better reflect dynamic markets. Both speeches featured a cohesive overarching message: Kanter believes that the regulatory and jurisprudential antitrust regime does not reflect and cannot address the market realities that exist today. Kanter believes that the Supreme Court of the United States’ 1992 opinion in Eastman Kodak v. Image Technology Services supports a change in approach because “[l]egal presumptions that rest on formalistic distinctions rather than actual market realities are generally disfavored in antitrust law.”[1] To address widespread increases in market concentration as well as “the economic and transformational technological changes” that define today’s economy, Kanter intends to revise the Division’s approach for analyzing mergers and conduct.[2]
  • Kanter seeks to revive dormant areas of antitrust enforcement, in particular monopolization cases with a focus on tech “platform” companies. Kanter stated that the Division has failed to adequately address certain areas of antitrust enforcement. He noted that it has been almost 20 years since the Division’s last major monopolization case.[3] Dominant tech platforms have “extracted private data” and “have few, if any, realistic alternatives,” he said.[4] Shortly after Kanter’s comments about prioritizing monopolization cases, Richard Powers, the deputy for criminal enforcement, stated that the Division will now evaluate Section 2 conduct for criminal charges.[5] Powers’s comments signal a dramatic change in enforcement, reversing decades of policy in which Section 2 charges were only brought in the civil context. These statements from Division leadership mirror those of FTC Chair Lina Khan, who has repeatedly called for more robust antitrust enforcement, and indicate that Kanter intends to reshape the Division, both in terms of resource allocation and approach to anticompetitive conduct, from a civil and criminal perspective.
  • Kanter laid out the Division’s overarching priorities clearly in his remarks. The Division intends to take a more aggressive stance on vertical merger enforcement, reformulate the Horizontal and Vertical Merger Guidelines to better reflect market realities (in the government’s view), enter into fewer consent decrees and instead litigate cases to generate judicial opinions and advance the relevant case law, and bring more civil and criminal conduct cases.

 
Vertical Merger Enforcement to Become a Focal Point for Regulators

  • Kanter stated that agency enforcement of vertical mergers has been lacking. Kanter believes that the Division has placed too much value on the potential efficiencies of vertical mergers without identifying the relevant theories of harm presented by such transactions.
  • The Division intends to [...]

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Former Government Contractor Executive Convicted of Procurement Fraud

On February 1, 2022, a federal jury found a former engineering firm executive guilty of conspiring to rig bids and defraud the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) of hundreds of public works contracts worth more than $23 million. From at least 2009 through fall 2018, Brent Brewbaker was responsible for crafting and submitting bids to NCDOT on behalf of Contech Engineered Solutions LLC, an engineering firm that makes products used in bridge construction, water drainage and other public works projects.

Read more here to learn how companies can minimize the risk that they are investigated by the Procurement Collusion Strike Force (PCSF).




Government Contractor Pleads Guilty to Bid-Rigging and Procurement Fraud

On June 7, 2021, as part of the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) continuing commitment to prosecuting cases where the government is a victim, a government contractor pleaded guilty to one count of bid-rigging and one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud in connection with the DOJ’s ongoing investigation into public works contracts for the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT).

Ohio-based Contech Engineered Solutions LLC (Contech) entered its plea of guilty before a federal judge in the US District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina and was sentenced to pay a $7 million criminal fine. Contech was also ordered to pay an additional $1,533,988 in restitution to the NCDOT. Notably, the DOJ did not impose a term of probation on Contech because Contech agreed to improve its compliance program to prevent recurrence of anticompetitive conduct. Contech, however, is required to cooperate with the DOJ, including producing documents and making witnesses available for interviews or testimony.

Contech and its former executive were indicted in October 2020 on six counts of alleged bid-rigging, conspiracy to commit fraud and mail and wire fraud in connection with a decade-long conspiracy involving public works projects in North Carolina.

This prosecution highlights the DOJ’s ongoing commitment to the Procurement Collusion Strike Force (PCSF) and its efforts to scrutinize public procurements and combat collusion and related fraud in government contracting.

The PCSF has conducted extensive training of law enforcement officers and procurement officers, among others, to help identify scenarios and situations where collusion is more likely to occur. The PCSF is also utilizing data analytics to advance its investigations, building on technological advancements and more useable data sets to target and prosecute anticompetitive conduct.

Importantly, the PCSF has recently doubled in size and has gone global just as the United States has approved unprecedented stimulus spending in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic and as the Biden administration is poised to approve a new infrastructure plan. The PCSF has provided tools that allow any individual to report suspected collusion via email or an online tip center. Enforcers’ renewed commitment to procurement collusion—coupled with increased government spending—will likely lead to more investigations and additional prosecutions in 2021.

Contech, a manufacturer of aluminum and other products, conspired with its supplier in bidding on numerous NCDOT public works projects. According to the indictment, the former Contech executive would obtain (or direct his subordinate to obtain) the supplier’s total bid price in advance. Using that information, Contech then submitted bids to be intentionally higher than its supplier. The indictment also alleged that Contech submitted false certifications that its bids were competitive and free of collusion throughout the conspiracy.

The indictment alleged bid-rigging between a manufacturer and its supplier, which is typically a vertical relationship and generally subject to the Rule of Reason rather than per se criminal analysis. Under the Rule of Reason, antitrust enforcers balance the anticompetitive effects of the conduct in question against the procompetitive benefits. Certain anticompetitive conduct, however, [...]

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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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2019 in Review: Overview of Cartel Investigations

The Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) was active in 2019. At the beginning of 2019, the DOJ was preparing for trial in six matters and had 91 pending grand jury investigations. Throughout 2019, the DOJ made public several new investigations, including in the commercial flooring industry, online auctions for surplus government equipment, the insulation installation industry and suspension assemblies used in hard disk drives. The DOJ also announced developments in other ongoing investigations.

Meanwhile, the European Commission (Commission) entered into settlements with parties in three cartel cases: Occupant Safety Equipment, FOREX and Canned Vegetables. The Commission imposed total fines of €1,469 million in 2019. In March 2019, the Commission launched an online tool to submit documents and information in the context of leniency and settlement proceedings.

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Procurement Collusion Strike Force’s Focus on Detection Yielding New Investigations

On March 3, 2020, the American Bar Association (ABA) hosted a Q&A with two members of the Procurement Collusion Strike Force (PCSF)—Mark Grundvig, the Assistant Chief of the DOJ Antitrust Division’s Criminal II section, and Marcus Mills, Special Agent, Major Fraud Investigations Division, USPS Office of Inspector General.

During the course of the Q&A, Mr. Grundvig and Mr. Mills provided their perspective on the goals and progress of the PCSF.

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DOJ Set to Increase Scrutiny of Government Contractors with New Procurement Collusion Strike Force

Government contractors should be aware that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is taking new steps to scrutinize public procurement. The DOJ Antitrust Division’s creation of the Procurement Collusion Strike Force (PCSF) means that government procurement enforcement will be a significant focus for the agency moving forward. Although the new strike force builds on past government-wide efforts to detect illegal conduct in public procurement, recent activity from the Antitrust Division has raised the stakes. In light of this, government contractors should broaden their compliance programs to include antitrust so they can avoid heightened monetary penalties and possible prison terms for implicated employees.

I. What Happened

The DOJ’s Antitrust Division took another step to increase its attention on government procurement by focusing resources on a new task force designed to detect anticompetitive behavior amongst government contractors. On October 24, 2019, the Antitrust Division posted a notice in the Federal Register inviting public comment on its implementation of a “Procurement Collusion Strike Force” complaint form. The complaint form will facilitate “reporting by the public of complaints, concerns, and tips regarding potential antitrust crimes affecting government procurement, grants, and program funding.” While the DOJ’s unveiling of the PCSF is significant in itself, the event is just one of several pieces of activity from the Antitrust Division indicating that government contractors must begin to consider antitrust risk much more seriously.

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