The Bid Rigging Whistleblower–Part 1

by Bob Connolly (previously posted on Cartel Capers)

I have been writing, along with my co-author Kimberly Justice, about the desirability of a criminal antitrust whistleblower statute.  Besides many blog posts, we have written a few articles such as It’s a Crime There Isn’t an Antitrust Whistleblower Statute, Wolters Kluwer, Antitrust Law Daily, April 8, 2018.

A principle objection to an antitrust whistleblower statute is that it would undermine the credibility of a witness if she received compensation for exposing a cartel.  Superficially that sounds right but doesn’t hold up when you consider the success of the Antitrust Division’s Corporate Leniency Program. Simply change “leniency applicant” to “whistleblower” and one can see that the Antitrust Division already has a form of whistleblowing; the Corporate Leniency Program which bestows rich rewards on the whistleblower.  As the Antitrust Division has stated repeatedly, the value of leniency is the tens of millions of dollars it can save a company.   Leniency/whistleblowing saves not only the leniency company money, but it can save multiple culpable executives from jail time in return for their cooperation: When Calculating The Costs And Benefits Of Applying For Corporate Amnesty, How Do You Put A Price Tag On An Individual’s Freedom?” So, the government is rightfully not skittish about paying for information. It’s a necessary evil to breaking up secret cartels and hopefully deter their inception.

The reward of leniency does, of course, undermine the credibility of witnesses just as a whistleblower reward will ding the credibility of any whistleblower who testifies.  If the government has only the cooperation of a leniency applicant, it is likely to: a) not bring a case; or b) lose the case it brings.  But, that flaw in leniency that does not outweigh the benefits!  Leniency whistleblowing almost always leads to cooperation from other subjects of the investigation.  The value of leniency whistleblowing is that it starts the dominos falling of companies/individuals coming in to cooperate for the next best deal available. You don’t see many criminal antitrust trials based on a grant of leniency, because the grant of leniency to one company leads to many guilty pleas and an overwhelming case against whomever is left.[1] A criminal antitrust whistleblower statute for individuals will work the same way.

Pardon the advertisement for a criminal antitrust whistleblower statute because this post is not about that.  In writing about the need for a whistleblower statute, I may have given the impression that it is not currently possible to be a whistleblower on cartel cases.  This is not true.  An individual whistleblower already has a way to help the government recover damages from bidding collusion, while at the same time getting some reward for the great expense and risk in doing this.  If there is bid rigging or price-fixing and the federal government is a victim of the collusion, a qui tam(whistleblower) suit can be brought seeking damages on behalf of the government.  A whistleblower can file a False Claims Act case alleging that a defendant (or group of defendants as in a cartel) obtained a federal contract by means of making a material false statement.  If a bid was rigged, the false statement would likely be the non-collusion affidavit filed with a vendor’s bid package.  This is typically referred to as a Certificate of Independent Price Determination, or something similar.  But, even without such a certification, in the context of a competitive bidding situation, there would be an implied certification that each vendor submitted his bid independently and without collusion with the other bidders, or even non-bidders if the scheme involved payoffs to a potential competitor to not bid).

A couple of things to note. To get a reward for this type of whistleblowing, it is not sufficient to simply go into the prosecutor’s office and lay out the evidence you have.[2]  Under the False Claims Act, the “Relator” [as the whistleblower is called] must file a qui tamsuit on behalf of the government alleging the government suffered damages as a result of the fraud.[3]  If damages are awarded as a result of the qui tamsuit, the Relator is entitled to between 15-25% of the amount the government recovers as a result of the bid rigging.  As an example, if a Relator files a qui tamaction alleging bid rigging on a $50 million contract and the contractor repays the government $10 million in overcharges, the whistleblower should recover between $1.5 million and $2.5 million.[4]

Once a qui tam suit is filed, the Relator’s attorneys must present the evidence they have to the government.  The government will decide whether they want to intervene and take over prosecution of the fraud.  If the government declines to intervene, (and the reason for declination can range from the government thinks your case is weak, or your case is fine, but they are just too busy with other matters).  Even if the government declines to intervene, the Relator can still prosecute the case, and some do, but it is obviously more difficult without the government’s assistance.  And in some fairly rare instances, the government can seek to have the Relator’s case dismissed if they believe it is without evidentiary merit or based on a legal theory the government doesn’t agree with.

The Antitrust Division has actually had successful criminal prosecutions that began based on evidence provided by a whistleblower who had filed a False Claims Act suit. The Antitrust Division neither publicizes the fact that whistleblowing rewards are available for exposing bid rigging on government contracts (and most states have similar False Claims Act statutes) and does not publicize when a whistleblower has successfully recovered damages for the government or himself.  When I was Chief of the Philadelphia Office of the Antitrust Division we prosecuted several cases where the investigation began as a result of a whistleblower False Claims Act case.  A publicly documented example of this was in 2012 when the Antitrust Division settled a civil bid rigging case where two companies were charged with rigging contracts for Bureau of Land Management gas leases.[5]  Because of the collusion, SG Interests and Gunnison Energy Corp. overcharged the government for leases by bidding less than they would have if they bid competitively. Each company paid a settlement of $550,000 in a civil case brought by the Antitrust Division.  The government’s case was based on a qui tamcase filed in 2009 by a former vice president of one of the companies.[6]  See, Justice Department Settlement Requires Gunnison Energy and SG Interests to Pay the United States a Total of $550,000 for Antitrust and False Claims Act Violations.

Also, there was a False Claim Act case filed in the Puerto Rican ocean shipping cartel matter.  That investigation resulted in the longest jail sentence ever received by an individual convicted of a Sherman Act violation–5 years[7].  Again, the fact that a whistleblower case was filed is not well known, but the following is an excerpt from an Antitrust Division appellate brief as Mr. Peake appealed his conviction:

Stallings, a former Sea Star executive, was the government’s first cooperator in its investigation into the shipping conspiracy, although he did not testify at Peake’s trial. Stallings’s [whistleblower] lawsuit sought damages for “injuries to the United States Government resulting from Defendants’ fraudulent course of conduct and conspiracy to allocate customers, rig bids, fix rates, surcharges and other fees for Puerto Rican Cabotage which resulted in the submission of false or fraudulent claims to the Government. [8]

The Antitrust Division noted in its brief:

The qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act permit whistleblowers (known as “relators”) to bring certain fraud claims on behalf of the United States. 31 U.S.C. § 3730(b). These actions “are filed under seal and remain that way for at least 60 days” to give “the government an opportunity to assess the relator’s complaint and decide whether to intervene and assume primary responsibility for prosecuting the case.” United States ex rel. Heineman-Guta v. Guidant Corp., 718 F.3d 28, 30 (1st Cir. 2013) (citing 31 U.S.C. § 3730(b)(2), (b)(4), (c)(1)). Regardless of whether the government intervenes, a relator is entitled to a portion of the proceeds from the lawsuit. 31 U.S.C. § 3730(d).

Coming Next in Part II:  Should There Be an Antitrust Division “Whistleblower Czar?”

Thanks for reading.  Please come back.  Bob Connolly  

[1]  To be honest, another reason there are so few criminal antitrust trials is the prohibitive cost and the draconian “trial penalty” a convicted defendant is likely to face for demanding his day in court.

[2]     It would be far more efficient if a whistleblower could simply provide the information he has to the government and cooperate in the investigation.  This is among the reasons Ms. Justice and I are advocating an SEC style whistleblower statute.

[3]     It is unquestioned that a scheme to rig bids not only violation the Sherman Act, but is a conspiracy to defraud the government where the government’s money is at stake.

[4]     31 U.S. Code § 3730 (d)Award to Qui Tam Plaintiff. — (1) If the Government proceeds with an action brought by a person under subsection (b), such person shall, subject to the second sentence of this paragraph, receive at least 15 percent but not more than 25 percent of the proceeds of the action or settlement of the claim, depending upon the extent to which the person substantially contributed to the prosecution of the action. Where the action is one which the court finds to be based primarily on disclosures of specific information (other than information provided by the person bringing the action) relating to allegations or transactions in a criminal, civil, or administrative hearing, in a congressional, administrative, or Government  Accounting Office report, hearing, audit, or investigation, or from the news media, the court may award such sums as it considers appropriate, but in no case more than 10 percent of the proceeds, taking into account the significance of the information and the role of the person bringing the action in advancing the case to litigation. Any payment to a person under the first or second sentence of this paragraph shall be made from the proceeds. Any such person shall also receive an amount for reasonable expenses which the court finds to have been necessarily incurred, plus reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs. All such expenses, fees, and costs shall be awarded against the defendant.

[5]     https://www.justice.gov/atr/case-document/file/510616/download.

[6]     https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-settlement-requires-gunnison-energy-and-sg-interests-pay-united-states.

[7].   https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/former-sea-star-line-president-sentenced-serve-five-years-prison-role-price-fixing-conspiracy.

[8]      US v. Frank Peake, Antitrust Division brief available at, https://www.justice.gov/atr/case-document/file/936611/download

 

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