Time to Reopen Some Antitrust Division Field Offices? (Part II)

Time to Reopen Some Antitrust Division Field Offices? (Part II)

honoreebadgeIn a recent post (here) I advocated for the Trump administration to reopen some of the shuttered Antitrust Division field offices to help focus on public procurement bid rigging at the local and regional level. As discussed in the earlier post, the field offices have always been major contributors to the international cartel program, so this suggestion is not meant to diminish the international effort. But, field offices are uniquely positioned to establish relationships with regional investigative agencies and public procurement bodies, which has led to mega bid rigging investigations and prosecutions such as school milk, road construction, electrical construction and collusion on DOD purchases handled by regional commands.  In this post, I want to focus on two points: 1) that public procurement bid rigging is worthy of the attention of antitrust enforcers; and 2) until the closing of four of the seven field offices, public procurement was a focus of the Antitrust Division resources.

The Impact of Public Procurement Collusion

Established competition regimes have emphasized to their less developed international enforcement agencies that there should be an emphasis on public procurement collusion.   The International Cartel Network (ICN) states:

When bid rigging impacts public procurement, it has the potential to cause great harm. One reason for this is that public procurement is often a large part of a nation’s economy. In many OECD countries, it amounts to 15 per cent of the gross domestic product and in most developing countries; it is substantially more than this. (here)

The Antitrust Division and the Federal Trade Commission expanded on this in a submission to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD. Below is a lengthy quote from the 2007 document, which makes the point I’d like to make better than I can:

PUBLIC PROCUREMENT ñ THE ROLE OF COMPETITION AUTHORITIES IN PROMOTING COMPETITION– United States –5 June 2007

In the United States, government attorneys at the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice have for many years spent considerable time conducting outreach and training programs for public procurement officials and government investigators, including investigators who work for government agencies which solicit bids for various projects. These outreach programs help develop an effective working relationship between the government attorneys who have the expertise concerning investigating and prosecuting bid rigging, and public procurement officials and government investigators who are in the best position to detect and prevent bid rigging on public procurement contracts. Government attorneys advise procurement officials on how their procedures can be changed to decrease the likelihood that bid rigging will occur and what bidding patterns and types of behavior they and their investigators should look for to detect bid rigging. In turn, procurement officials and investigators often provide the key evidence that results in a successful bid-rigging prosecution. Our experience has been that this team effort among public procurement officials, government investigators, and government attorneys has contributed to a significant decrease in bid rigging on public procurement in the United States over the last twenty to thirty years.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a majority of overall criminal antitrust prosecutions in the U.S. were for bid rigging, primarily involving public procurement. Most notable in terms of the number of cases was bid rigging on the construction of roads and on the sale of milk to schools. During this time period, the Antitrust Division filed hundreds of cases involving bid rigging on road building and the sale of milk. More recently, the number of bid-rigging prosecutions has dropped dramatically. For example, during the past three years less than five percent of the criminal antitrust prosecutions in the United States were for bid rigging. (here)

The message has been delivered and received by newer competition agencies. The Competition Commission of India, as just one example, has made public procurement investigations and prosecutions a priority.  This chart is from a Commission publication, Public Procurement System: Competition Issues (here):

GAINS FROM COMPETITION: INTERNATIONAL EXPERIENCE

  • OECD survey -shows saving to public treasury of 17 to 43% in developing countries
  • European Commission – cost saving of Euro 5 billion to 25 billion between 1993 to 2003
  • In Russia: Saving of $7 billion to Govt. budget in 2008
  • Pakistan: Saving of Rs.187 million for Karachi water and sewerage board
  • Columbia: Saving of 47% in procurement of military goods
  • Guatemala: Saving of 43% in purchase of medicines

Previous Antitrust Division Efforts at Protecting Infrastructure Tax $$

If the Trump administration is able to launch a significant infrastructure development program, the emphasis on pubic procurement competition becomes even more important.   In fact, when the Obama administration launched its American Recovery Act, the Antitrust Division made public procurement a priority. An Antitrust Division press release (here) noted:

A working group, co-chaired by [John] Terzaken and trial attorney Kate Patchen from the Division’s San Francisco field office, conducted training for more than 25,000 individuals from 20 Federal agencies. Terzaken’s development and management of the Recovery Initiative was recognized by the Department with an Attorney General’s Award in 2010.

The bulk of these outreach efforts were conducted by the field offices. I don’t know the exact extent of the Division’s current outreach activity, but from anecdotal evidence it has largely disappeared.

From a practical (and slightly cynical) point of view, launching an effort to prevent and detect public procurement collusion is a win/win situation for any administration. If no collusion is detected, Bingo! The program worked and the taxpayers saved countless dollars. And, if bid rigging is detected and prosecuted, that also is a success, as the prosecution will serve as a strong deterrent that “bid rigging will not be tolerated.”

I think I will have one more post on this subject.

Thanks for reading.

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