Germany’s Andreas Mundt rejects idea of criminal sanctions for antitrust violators

Germany won’t join jurisdictions with criminal competition penalties

The head of the federal cartel office, the Bundeskartellamt’s Andreas Mundt, reportedly dismissed the idea of introducing criminal sanctions for competition-law offences.  Speaking at the GFR Society for Law and Policy’s event, he called imprisonment a “severe weapon” that had no place in the “rarely [] crystal clear matter” of cartel violations, where “the lines are often blurred.”

Among the countries that do have a criminal antitrust regime (usually only for “hard-core” offences, such as price-fixing or bid-rigging and market allocation among horizontal competitors), the most well-known is of course the United States, whose Sherman Act made cartel violations a criminal felony as far back as 1890.  Among the more recent acolytes of criminal penalties are newer competition-law jurisdictions, such as South Africa and Kenya.

International precedent-setting institutions and enforcers’ recommendations tend towards identifying the positive effect of criminal antitrust penalties:

OECD, 3rd Hard-Core Cartel Report (2005):

  • Recommends that governments consider the introduction and imposition of criminal antitrust sanctions against individuals to enhance deterrence and incentives to cooperate through leniency programmes.

U.S. Department of Justice, Tom Barnett (2008):

  • “Jail time creates the most effective, necessary deterrent.”
  • “[N]othing in our enforcement arsenal has as great a deterrent as the threat of substantial jail time in a United States prison, either as a result of a criminal trial or a guilty plea.”

Cornerstones of a successful criminal antitrust regime commonly include the following:

  • Crystal-clear demarcation of criminal vs. civil conduct
  • Highly effective leniency policy also applies to individuals
  • Standard of proof must be met beyond a reasonable doubt
  • No blanket liability for negligent directors – only actors liable
  • Plea bargaining to be used as an effective tool to reduce sentence
  • Clear pronouncements by enforcement agency to help counsel predict outcomes

Demarcation of criminal vs civil antitrust conduct in U.S.

Advertisements

Almunia: EU Antitrust damages directive “most significant”

St. Gallen International Competition Law Forum Remarks Highlight Civil Competition-Law Enforcement & Cartel Victims’ Access to Evidence as Top-of-Agenda for Outgoing Commissioner

Joaquin ALMUNIA, Vice President of the European Commission responsible for Competition policy & enforcement, made the following (excerpted) remarks at the 2014 International Competition Law Forum held in St. Gallen.

From a practitioner’s perspective, the Commissioner’s emphasis on cartel victims’ access to evidence, his subtle reminder that the Directive merely sets a “minimum standard“, and the parallel observation that the upcoming collective redress Recommendation will be applicable across all policy (and legal) fields are important highlights of the prepared remarks.

I will start with the Directive on antitrust damages actions, which I regard as one of the most significant developments in the competition-policy domain in the current mandate.

Infringements of EU competition law are not only bad for the competitiveness of our economy. They also harm companies and consumers directly.

We recognise that every individual consumer and business has the right to be compensated for this damage. However, given the legal systems of EU countries, only a few victims obtain compensation in practice.

The time has come to translate our principles into actual practice.

Last year the Commission tabled a proposal to remove existing obstacles in national rules and make it easier for victims to obtain compensation across the EU through private enforcement.

The European Parliament and the Council have seized the opportunity and reached a political agreement with remarkable speed.

The Parliament voted the final text by an overwhelming majority, and the formal approval by the Council is expected before or shortly after the summer.

This outcome is a major success for a number of reasons.

First, from the perspective of victims, the Directive will make it easier for them to get hold of the evidence they need to prove the damage, because national courts will be empowered to order disclosure of relevant evidence.

The Directive also allows victims to rely on decisions taken by national competition authorities when these find an infringement.

Moreover, it introduces clear rules on several aspects of competition litigation, thus reducing the existing uncertainties, which have a cost for all parties.

From the perspective of the internal market, the Directive sets a minimum standard in all Member States, which means more legal certainty and a more level playing field throughout the EU.

Finally, from the perspective of competition authorities, the Directive fine-tunes the interaction between their work and the compensation claims by private parties. This is thanks to rules that preserve the incentives of companies to cooperate in antitrust investigations.

In parallel to the Directive, the Commission has also adopted a Recommendation inviting Member States to introduce collective redress mechanisms at national level by mid-2015.

The Recommendation includes basic principles that would ensure fair, timely and affordable procedures across the EU. The Recommendation is not limited to competition law but covers all policy fields.

Price-fixers beware: U.S. DOJ scores first-ever pure antitrust-based extradition from E.U.

From DOJ: First-Ever Pure Antitrust Extradition

In what may well affect African and other international price-fixers going forward, the spectre of U.S. extradition for criminal antitrust charges has been reinforced by the recent successful DOJ extradition request in the “Marine Hose” cartel.  An Italian national was extradited from Germany to face bid-rigging charges.

“First-ever”?! Some readers may recall the carbon products cartel and a certain Mr. Ian Norris, the then-Morgan Crucible chief executive, who had been extradited from the U.K. to the United States back in 2010.  Yet, that was not a pure antitrust charge, but he was rather extradited on a technicality, if you will, namely the “obstruction of justice” charge, given the lack of reciprocal or dual criminality of the underlying price-fixing offense in the two countries at the time the competition offense had been committed in the early 1990s.

The Marine Hose cartel extradition is different: In this case, the DOJ succeeded, for the first time ever, in securing an extradition solely on a competition-law offense being charged.

What follows is the DOJ press release text:

WASHINGTON — Romano Pisciotti, an Italian national, was extradited from Germany on a charge of participating in a conspiracy to suppress and eliminate competition by rigging bids, fixing prices and allocating market shares for sales of marine hose sold in the United States and elsewhere, the Department of Justice announced today. This marks the first successfully litigated extradition on an antitrust charge.

Pisciotti, a former executive with Parker ITR Srl, a marine hose manufacturer headquartered in Veniano, Italy, was arrested in Germany on June 17, 2013. He arrived in the Southern District of Florida, in Miami, yesterday and is scheduled to make his initial appearance today in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in Ft. Lauderdale, at 11:00 a.m. EDT.

“This first of its kind extradition on an antitrust charge allows the department to bring an alleged price fixer to the United States to face charges of participating in a worldwide conspiracy,” said Assistant Attorney General Bill Baer in charge of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division. “This marks a significant step forward in our ongoing efforts to work with our international antitrust colleagues to ensure that those who seek to subvert U.S. law are brought to justice.”

Marine hose is a flexible rubber hose used to transfer oil between tankers and storage facilities. During the conspiracy, the cartel affected prices for hundreds of millions of dollars in sales of marine hose and related products sold worldwide.

According to a one-count felony indictment filed under seal on Aug. 26, 2010, and ordered unsealed on Aug. 5, 2013, in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Florida, Pisciotti carried out the conspiracy by agreeing during meetings, conversations and communications to allocate shares of the marine hose market among the conspirators; use a price list for marine hose in order to implement the conspiracy; and not compete for customers with other marine hose sellers either by not submitting prices or bids or by submitting intentionally high prices or bids, all in accordance with the agreements reached among the conspiring companies. As part of the conspiracy, Pisciotti and his conspirators provided information received from customers in the United States and elsewhere about upcoming marine hose jobs to a co-conspirator who served as the coordinator of the conspiracy. That coordinator acted as a clearinghouse for bidding information that was shared among the conspirators, and was paid by the manufacturers for coordinating the conspiracy. The department said the conspiracy began at least as early as 1999 and continued until at least May 2007. Pisciotti was charged with joining and participating in the conspiracy from at least as early as 1999 until at least November 2006.

Pisciotti is charged with violating the Sherman Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $1 million criminal fine for individuals. The maximum fine may be increased to twice the gain derived from the crime or twice the loss suffered by the victims of the crime, if either of those amounts is greater than the statutory maximum fine.

As a result of the department’s ongoing marine hose investigation, five companies, including Parker ITR; Bridgestone Corp. of Japan; Manuli SPa of Italy’s Florida subsidiary; Trelleborg of France; and Dunlop Marine and Oil Ltd, of the United Kingdom, and nine individuals have pleaded guilty.

The investigation is being conducted by the Antitrust Division’s Washington Criminal I Section, the Defense Criminal Investigative Service (DCIS) of the Department of Defense’s Office of Inspector General, the U.S. Navy Criminal Investigative Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The U.S. Marshals Service and other law enforcement agencies from multiple foreign jurisdictions are also investigating or assisting in the ongoing matter. The Criminal Division’s Office of International Affairs provided assistance.

Dutch suit against “paraffin mafia” cartel moves forward

A Dutch district court has set what some believe may be a new landmark precedent in the area of private cartel enforcement in the European Union.

The case is what appears to be a fairly straight-forward “follow-on” civil action, i.e., a complaint brought in civil court by injured parties (or those who acquired those parties’ rights to sue) that is based entirely on a European Union Commission decision condemning illegal cartel activity within the common EU market.

My neighbors on the Avenue Louise here in Brussels, CDC (Cartel Damages Claims), had bought the rights to sue from various purchasers of paraffin wax and lodged the complaint against the “paraffin mafia” (Shell’s words, quoted by Neelie Kroes – also see here)  in September 2011. The 13-year cartel (1992-2005)** may well result in sizeable civil damage awards (Sasol’s reduced EC fine alone was 318 million €) once the procedural and jurisdictional hurdles have been cleared.  And this most recent ruling goes a long way in doing so.  The key “procedural issues” that had to be resolved first were whether all of the cartel members could be sued in the Netherlands, even though not all of them operated in that country, and whether the pending EU court appeals against the 2008 Commission decision effectively stayed the parallel civil proceedings in the Dutch court.

The court ruled in favour of the plaintiff group on both accounts, holding that all cartelists could be sued together for damages in the jurisdiction in which any one of their fellow co-conspirators has its seat [here, that would notably be Royal Dutch Shell, ironically the cartel’s whistle-blower that escaped the EC ruling with a zero-€ fine] . That is, even though purported ring-leader Sasol or any of the other [non-Dutch] alleged cartelists may not have had any operations in the Netherlands, they can still be subject to a full-blown civil lawsuit there. In effect, the ruling says that the European Union’s antitrust decisions, combined with the civil protections afforded EU companies and citizens, creates a de facto long-arm statute, reaching beyond the traditional geographic jurisdictional boundaries.

In addition, it held that a pending appeal against an EC cartel decision should not result in an automatic stay of any civil proceedings, as this would unduly curtail the fundamental right to seek compensation of injured parties under EU law.

While I don’t read Dutch — and therefore cannot analyse the actual decision of the NL royal court — I trust that CDC summarised its findings accurately, even though the company clearly has a stake in this and thus a likely bias.

** According to Neelie Kroes’s speech, the cartelists initially met at the “Blue Salon” at a Hamburg hotel bar (my home town, coincidentally). I have a feeling it was this place — it’s always fun to visualise cartel activity in the flesh, just like “The Informant” did for moviegoers in 2009…:

Blauer Saal Kempinski Hamburg