Beyond the DOJ: Criminal liability for cartel conduct in Africa

South Africa: Driving Force behind Enforcement of Criminal Sanctions for Cartelists?

By AAT Senior Contributor, Michael-James Currie

In May 2016, precisely a year ago, criminal liability for directors or persons with management authority who cause a firm to engage in cartel conduct was introduced in South Africa by way of amendments to the Competition Act.

The introduction of criminal liability caught most of the South African competition law community off-guard, including the competition authorities, despite the relevant legislative provisions having been drafted and presented to Parliament for approval in 2009.

A major reason why there was such a delay in the enactment of the relevant legislation were concerns raised about the practicality and legality in enforcing the criminal liability provisions, at least in the manner currently drafted. These concerns, however, were never addressed and the Minister of Economic Development, Minister Patel, proceeded to bring into effect the criminalising provisions. The Minister has openly taken a view that current administrative penalties, which to date have been the most prominent form of sanctions imposed on firms for engaging in cartel conduct, do not provide a sufficient deterrent.

Criminal sanctions are, however, by nature a rather retributive liability, and there have been limited instances in which firms that have previously found to have contravened the Competition Act are repeat offenders. Administrative penalties coupled with reputational damage would appear to be a substantial deterrent.

Regardless, the sentiments of Minister Patel were recently echoed by the head of the National Prosecuting Authority, Shaun Abrahams, who recently indicated that anti-corruption task team (ACTT) has been briefed to treat ‘collusion’ in the same vein as corruption. The ACTT was formulated in 2010 to target high profile cases of corruption.

While it is understood that the Competition Commission (SACC) and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) having been working on a memorandum of understanding between the two enforcement agencies for over a year, it appears that such a MoU is still some way off from being finalised.

It is not yet clear whether the NPA envisages a more active role in cartel investigations with a view to institute criminal proceedings in terms of the Competition Act, or whether Mr Abrahams envisages holding those accountable by other pieces of anti-corruption legislation such as the Prevention and Combatting of Corrupt Activities Act (PACCA).

Mr Abrahams has indicated that he has been trying to set up a meeting with the Commissioner of the South Africa Competition Commission, Tembinkosi Bonakele, in order to discuss recent investigations by the SACC, most notably in the banking sector.

Of particular interest is that the Black Empowerment Forum (BEF) had laid criminal charges at the South African Police against Citibank following Citibank’s R69 million settlement agreement with the SACC. The BEF had indicated that they would write to the President and the NPA in an effort to elevate and expedite this case.

The recent banking referrals have been politically charged with many of the view that there has been political interference in the manner in which the banking investigation has been handled. A number of reports have linked the BEF which was allegedly only established in April 2017, to the President’s son, Edward Zuma.

This does raise queries as to the motivation behind the BEF’s criminal complaint and also whether it was the BEF’s criminal complaint that has sparked Mr Abrahams’ recent comments.

The timing of the BEF criminal complaint and Mr Abrahams’ expressed interest in pursuing cartelists for criminal liability, the allegations of political interference in the banking referrals and the lack of any formal arrangement between the SACC and the NPA regarding the enforcement of the criminal sanctions (as far as we are aware) may all be unrelated issues. This, however, seems doubtful.

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The risks of seeking antitrust leniency

‘Excusing yourself from the dinner table’ – the risk in applying for immunity in terms of the Competition Act

By Mitchell Brooks, AAT guest author

cutlery (1).jpg

After reading David Lewis’ ‘Thieves at the Dinner Table’, a must read for any aspiring competition lawyer, Lewis refers to his negotiations with various cartel members as the head of the Competition Commission. Highlighting that anticompetitive conduct essentially robs the consumer of competitive pricing, hence the reference to thieves, and often this is done during informal dinners between top execs.

The question begs, what are some of the inherent risks in applying for immunity for contravening the Competition Act (“the Act”) and, in essence, excusing yourself from the dinner table.

In Brief

For purposes of this discussion, the composition of the Competition process can be described as follows:

  • The Competition Commission (“the Commission”) investigates anticompetitive conduct in contravention of the Act
  • The Commission then refers the potential perpetrator to the Competition Tribunal (“the Tribunal”);
  • The Tribunal adjudicates the matter and determines whether the Act is contravened and whether a fine is imposed.
  • In order for the Commission to investigate a potential perpetrator, either an outside party (like you and I) must submit a complaint to the Commission or the Commission must initiate a complaint itself.

What is the Corporate Leniency Policy “CLP”?

The CLP is a mechanism utilised by the Commission to uncover cartel practices, the most notorious form being price fixing. The CLP is a policy developed by the Commission and possesses no legal status. Rather, it is an expression of how the Commission will handle leniency applications. In brief, the CLP provides for the granting of “immunity” by the Commission to perpetrators who contravene the Competition Act. However, the CLP operates on a “first to the door” principle meaning that only the first member of the cartel to come clean will qualify for immunity. However, in my humble opinion this principle might not find much support in the context of hub-and-spoke collusion whereby the supplier in the upstream market facilitates collusion between competitors in the downstream market (an increasing phenomenon globally). In other words, is it acceptable that the facilitator qualifies for immunity despite being the orchestrator of the collusion?

What does immunity entail?

According to the CLP, “immunity” means that a successful applicant (otherwise a perpetrator) will not be subject to adjudication or a fine. In turn, “adjudication” entails a referral of a contravention of a chapter two provision (cartel conduct for example) by the Commission. However, Wallace JA in AgriWire (Agri Wire (Pty) Ltd and Another v Commissioner of the Competition Commission and Others (660/2011) [2012] ZASCA 134) stressed that immunity is a much broader concept insofar as the successful applicant would not be referred to the Tribunal along with the other cartel members. In essence, an agreement is concluded between the Commission and the applicant to not refer the applicant to the Tribunal. In other words, the Tribunal has no discretion to impose a fine and the Tribunal does not grant a consent order in terms of the Act (my emphasis added).

What are the risks involved?

Higher fines

First, the applicant is still exposed to adjudication despite not being subject to the discretion of the Tribunal. If the Commission decides against referring a complaint brought by an outside party, the outside party may refer the complaint to the Tribunal itself and bypass the requirement that the Commission make a referral.

Furthermore, if the Commission decides against taking a self-initiated complaint further, nothing in the Competition Act prevents an outside party from submitting a new complaint and referring the matter themselves. This means that there is still a risk of a higher fine being imposed on the perpetrator. In order to achieve greater certainty, the applicant should seek a Consent Order by the Tribunal, which will ensure no outside party may refer the matter for adjudication. This Consent Order should reduce the risk of a fine, greater than the agreed amount as per the immunity agreement, being imposed.

Civil damages

Second, the CLP does not provide leniency against civil damages, however the process as explained in Agriwire creates the perception that immunity is granted against civil claims as well. This perception is apparent in Premier Foods v NormanManoim 2015 (SCA).

In brief, Premier Foods received immunity for its involvement in the notorious bread cartel. Subsequently, private parties sought civil damages. However, section 65(6) of the Competition Act only allows civil damages claims if the party is found in contravention of the Act. A certificate was issued by the Tribunal on the basis that Premier Foods’ conduct had been referred to the Tribunal and thus a finding was made. However, the SCA in Premier Foods disagreed with this finding, instead the SCA held that Premier Foods was not a party to proceedings in the Tribunal, it had not been referred and therefore the certificate was unlawful. As a result, the private parties were barred from a civil claim.

Therefore, according to Premier Foods, a successful applicant would not be exposed to civil damages because there can be no finding against a perpetrator who is not referred to the Tribunal. In summary, the granting of immunity guards the perpetrator against a civil damages claim, even though the CLP’s objective is not to prevent civil damages.

Contrary to the perception created by this unfortunate precedent, successful applicants are arguably still exposed to civil damages by means of a section 58(1)(a)(v) declaration by the Tribunal that the Act was contravened despite the granting of leniency. Nothing in the Act suggests that a complaint procedure be followed in order to obtain a declaration. A private party should be able to approach the Tribunal to ask for a declaration that the Act was contravened based on the immunity agreement, which will not amount to an adjudication as per Judge Wallace’s interpretation but will still amount to a finding. Although there have been no cases relying on 58(1)(a)(v) since Premier Foods, nothing suggests that this avenue cannot be re-opened.

Criminal prosecution

Lastly, a new amendment to the Companies Act provides for criminal liability against directors who engage in cartel conduct. The CLP and the Competition Act are completely silent on the impact of the CLP on criminal liability. It might well be possible for a managing director to be exposed to criminal prosecution despite the granting of immunity to the perpetrating company. Therefore, the directors would need to communicate with the National Prosecuting Authority and coordinate accordingly.

Conclusion

In light of the above, the CLP will be less effective until the above uncertainties are addressed and it is advisable that when one is faced with cartel conduct, it is important that one seek professional legal advice due to the complexity of the immunity application process.

SOUTH AFRICA: ZUMA’S STATE OF THE NATION ADDRESS MAY BE HINT AT INTRODUCTION OF COMPLEX MONOPOLY PROVISIONS

While the media headlines are largely filled with the disruptions that took place at the State of the Nation Address (SONA) by President Jacob Zuma on 9 February 2017, the President made an important remark which, if true, may have a significant impact on competition law in South Africa, particular in relation to abuse of dominance cases.

In this regard, the President stated that:

During this year, the Department of Economic Development will bring legislation to Cabinet that will seek to amend the Competition Act. It will among others address the need to have a more inclusive economy and to de-concentrate the high levels of ownership and control we see in many sectors. We will then table the legislation for consideration by parliament.

In this way, we seek to open up the economy to new players, give black South Africans opportunities in the economy and indeed help to make the economy more dynamic, competitive and inclusive. This is our vision of radical economic transformation.”

Patel talksNeither the President nor Minister Patel have given any further clarity as to the proposed legislative amendments other than Patel’s remarks early in January 2017 in which he stated that:

The review covers areas such as the efficacy of the administration of the Competition Act, procedural aspects in the investigation and prosecution of offences, matters relating to abuse of dominance, more effective investigations against cartels and the current public interest provisions of the act.

Says John Oxenham, a competition attorney who has closely followed the legislative and policy developments, “despite the broad non-committal remarks by Minister Patel, it is clear that the Minister is zealous in having the ‘complex monopoly’ provisions brought into force to address in order to address, what the Minister perceives to be, significant abuse of dominance in certain concentrated markets.”

In terms of the provisions, as currently drafted, where five or less firms have 75% market share in the same market, a firm could be found to have engaged in prohibited conduct if any two or more of those firms collectively act in a parallel manner which has the effect of lessening competition in the market (i.e. by creating barriers to entry, charging excessive prices or exclusive dealing and “other market characteristics which indicate coordinated behavior”).

white-collar-crimeDespite having been promulgated in 2009, the ‘complex monopoly’ provisions have not yet been brought into effect largely due to the concerns raised as to how these provisions will be enforced, says Primerio Ltd.’s Andreas Stargard: “It is noteworthy that the introduction of criminal liability for directors and persons with management authority who engage in cartel conduct was also promulgated in 2009, but surprised most (including the Competition Authorities) when it was quite unexpectedly brought into force in 2016.”

Minister Patel was no doubt a key driving force behind the introduction of criminal liability and it would, therefore, not be surprising if the complex monopoly provisions are brought into force with equal swiftness in 2017.

South Africa: Competition Appeal Court Sends Strong “Passive Participation” Message

Competitors Beware of Industry Gatherings

By Charl van der Merwe

On 19 December 2016, the South African Competition Appeal Court (CAC) handed down judgment in the Omnico (Pty) Ltd; Cool Heat Agencies (Pty) Ltd vs The Competition Commission & Others matter.

The judgment details an application brought by two respondents who sought to challenge the Competition Tribunal’s finding that their participation at industry association meetings amounted to cartel conduct, despite the appellants’ contention that they did not actively participate in any anticompetitive discussions and were effectively passive participants at the meetings.

The CAC had to decide on whether or not silent participation by firms at an industry  meeting or forum of competitors where cartel activity was discussed amounts to a contravention in terms of section 4(1)(b)(i) of the Competition Act, Act 89 of 1998 (“the Act”).

south_africaSection 4 of the Act provides that “An agreement between, or concerted practice by, firms, or a decision by an association of firms, is prohibited if it is between parties in a horizontal relationship and if – (a) it has the effect of substantially preventing, or lessening, competition in a market, unless a party to the agreement, concerted practice, or decision can prove that any technological, efficiency or other pro-competitive gain resulting from it outweighs that effect”.

The Appellants are wholesalers that supply bicycle and bicycle accessories to the retail trade. The appellants attended a series of industry meetings together with various retailers and wholesalers of bicycles and bicycle accessories to discuss ways in which retailers could increase retail margins. This the CAC found was achieved by the wholesalers agreeing to increase the Recommended Retail Price, (“RRP”) for the various products sold.

In this particular case, the RRP increase was scheduled to take place on the 1st of October.

Though the appellants both increased their RRP on the effective date, the crux of the matter and the point the appellants placed great reliance on was the contention that they never actively participated in the industry meetings.

smoke_filled_room_smallThe CAC in dismissing the appeal held that it was clear that there was a cartel and that due to the complex and clandestine nature of cartel conduct, the Commission merely had to show sufficient evidence that in its entirety proves that the appellants were part of that cartel. The Commission was not required to scrutinise and evaluate each and every activity or discussion at the various meetings, and it was up to the appellants to put forward rebuttal evidence to establish that their participation at the meetings lacked any intention on their part to be a party to the collusive conduct.

Andreas Stargard, a competition lawyer with Primerio Ltd., notes that, “importantly, the CAC confirmed that the standard of proof in competition law cases is lower than that of contract and common law — a wink and a nod may in the smoke-filled-room, under the right circumstances, be sufficient proof to show collusion among competitors.  To prove a cartel, there is no need to apply the rigid principles of contract law, determining whether a meeting of the minds was reached, or to prove formal offer and acceptance in order to show that a collusive agreement was reached.”

Furthermore, he says,“the CAC found that the evidence put forward by the Commission need only be ‘sufficiently precise, consistent and convincing’ — not necessarily the ‘clear and convincing‘ evidentiary standard generally required in terms of common law.”

In addition, the CAC noted that there is no need for a single pressing piece of conduct to show that an anticompetitive arrangement has been entered into, but that the authorities will consider the cumulative effect of conduct whether active or passive in order to determine whether, on a holistic approach, the respondents had entered into a collusive agreement.

The CAC held that although the appellants did not express agreement at the meeting, the appellants did not ‘publicly’ distance themselves from the collusive proposals put forward at the meetings.

Accordingly, the CAC found that:

  • there was consensus reached at the meeting and the appellants failed to distance themselves from the discussions;
  • neither appellants gave any indication that they disagreed with the consensus reached at the meeting nor that they would not proceed along the lines as agreed during the meeting;
  • that at the very least (without even increasing their prices on the effective date) the appellants would have passively benefitted from the conduct resulting from that collusive arrangement; and
  • that neither of the appellants placed any evidence before the CAC to prove that they priced independently.

In conclusion, therefore, it is clear that firms who attend industry association meetings, forums or the like, are obliged to take active steps to denounce any anticompetitive discussions which may have taken place at such meetings.

Once a firm is party to any anticompetitive discussions, the onus rests on that firm to actively distance itself from such discussions – this is so irrespective of whether a collusive arrangement is implemented or not. It is not clear what steps need to be taken to satisfactorily distance oneself from such discussions, although it must be a ‘public’ denouncement. This could be interpreted as indicating that firms may be obliged to report to the authorities any collusive arrangements which they wish to actively distance themselves from.

South African Competition Commission… More Dawn Raids!

By AAT Senior Contributor, Michael-James Currie.

On 28 September 2016, the South African Competition Commission (SACC) conducted a further set of dawn raids. This time, on various cargo shipping liners based in the provinces of Kwa-Zulu Natal and the Western Cape.

The SACC indicated that “Hamburg Sud South Africa (Pty) Ltd, Maersk South Africa (Pty) Ltd, Safmarine (Pty) Ltd, Mediterranean Shipping Company (Pty) Ltd, Pacific International Line South Africa (Pty) Ltd and CMA CGM Shipping Agencies South Africa (Pty) Ltd have engaged in collusive practices to, inter alia, fix the incremental rates for the shipment of cargo from Asia to South Africa in contravention of the Competition Act”.

The investigation is allegedly a result of a complaint received from a member of public.

south_africaThe SACC has not provided an indication of the period over which conduct took place and whether this investigation relates to historical or on-going conduct. This is an important consideration in light of the introduction of criminalisation of cartel conduct, which came into effect as of 1 May 2016. In terms of the Section 73A of the Competition Amendment Act, any director or person with management authority may be held criminally liable for ‘causing’ or ‘knowingly acquiescing’ in cartel conduct.

Since the notion of criminal liability was put raised as far back as 2008, there have been substantial concerns raised about the effectiveness of the SACC’s corporate leniency policy which in effect, offers immunity to a company who whistle blows, from an administrative penalty only. The CLP does not offer immunity to any individual from criminal prosecution, as the discretion to prosecute an individual under Section 73A, rests solely with the National Prosecuting Authority.

The interplay between the introduction of criminal liability and dawn raids will, in our view, be quite significant as there have been a number of respondents who have thought to approach the SACC for leniency, off the back of a dawn raid. A decision which a company may think twice about if its directors may potentially be held criminally liable.

Regardless of the impact which the criminalisation of cartel conduct may have on the whistleblowing regime, the SACC remains committed to utilising dawn raids as one of its most powerful investigative tools.

The SACC has been strong proponent of dawn raids and despite having conducted its first dawn raids in the early 2000’s, the past 18 months has seen a marked spike in the number of dawn raids conducted across a broad range of sectors.

The shipping industry in particular has been the subject of significant attention from the South African Competition Authorities and last year saw substantial administrative penalties, of over R95 million, levied by way of a settlement agreement on WWL and NYK Shipping Liners respectively for having engaged cartel conduct in relation to certain shipping routes. This investigation, however, remains on-going.

“The WRAP” from last month – a new semi-serial publication

South African Antitrust Developments: a WRAP from the Comp-Corner

Issue 1 – May 2016

The editors and authors at AAT welcome you to our new semi-serial publication: “The WRAP.”  In this first WRAP edition, we look back over recent months and provide an overview of the key recent developments which antitrust practitioners and businesses alike should take note of in respect of merger control and competition law enforcement.

As always, thank you for reading the WRAP, and remember to visit AAT for up-to-date competition-law news from the African continent.

         –Ed. (we wish to thank our contributors, especially Michael Currie, for their support)

More Criminal Anti-Cartel Enforcement in Africa? Some Thoughts on Nigeria

By AAT guest author, Osayomwanbor Bob Enofe, Sutherland School of Law Doctoral Scholar, UCD.

We recently wrote about the landmark enactment of the new South African competition legislation that makes hard-core price-fixing a criminal offence, subjecting cartelists to up to 10 years imprisonment.  Nigeria is usually not on the radar of antitrust practitioners, however, and certainly not in the criminal sense, either.  As regular readers of AAT know, the Republic of Nigeria has featured occasionally in our posts despite not having a functioning antitrust regime, yet.  As editor and Pr1merio director Andreas Stargard wrote in an article entitled “Nigerian antitrust?“, scholars and political activists alike have promoted the idea of establishing an antitrust regime in West Africa’s dominant economy: ‘Today, AfricanAntitrust adds its voice to the steady, though infrequent, discussion surrounding the possibility of a Nigerian competition-law regime.  In our opinion, it is not a question of “if” but “when”, and perhaps more importantly, “how“?’

Today, contributing author Bob Enofe adds his voice to the mix, and we are publishing one of his articles that originally appeared on Robert Connolly’s cartel capers blog.

Criminal Antitrust in Nigeria?

nigeriaThe Federal Republic of Nigeria is currently in the process of enacting a competition law, including to criminalise cartel activity amongst competitors. While such is in line with moves made by various other jurisdictions and theories of ‘rational actor’, sanction and deterrence, on ground realities suggest that criminalisation where transplanted might be seriously flawed.

From the late 1990s, and particularly in the year 2000, the Federal Government of Nigeria commenced moves to enact a Competition Law. Under such law, business cartel activity defined as agreements between competitors, aimed at distorting the process of competition and generating monopolistic rents, would be criminalised. The ‘Federal Competition Bill, 2002’, an executive bill drafted by the Nigerian Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE), was titled: “a Bill for an Act to provide necessary conditions for market competition and to stimulate creative business activities, protect consumers, and promote the balanced development of the natural economy, by prohibiting restrictive contracts and business practices that substantially lessened competition”. It was also to be a Bill to regulate “possible abuses of dominant positions by businesses, and anti-competitive combines, and to establish the Federal Competition Commission, for effective implementation and enforcement of all the provisions of the bill”.  According to relevant sections of the bill, cartel agreements amongst competitors, including price fixing, bid rigging and market division, were also to be expressly criminalised. Clearly a robust and comprehensive bill, 16 years after introduction to the Nigerian National Assembly, the bill remains to be passed into law. Several amendments have since been presented, together with other bills presented by lawmakers. In every case, such bills have either stalled at first reading stage, or in certain cases disappeared from the legislative process. In one of such instances, an amendment of the above bill (The Federal Trade and Competition Commission Bill, 2006) was “vehemently” objected to by distinguished Senators, prompting governmental withdrawal. Amongst reasons advanced for the reception accorded the bill included that there was no need for a distinct ‘competition commission’, in the face of an already existent consumer protection council in Nigeria; other legislators simply complained about a proliferation of “too many commissions” in the country. Commentators have alluded to overt ignorance and lack of particular inclination for the subject, on the part of Nigerian Senators, as in reality underlining the reception accorded the bill.

In a paper recently presented at the #SLSA2016, ‘Developing Countries, Nigeria, and Cartel Criminalisation: of Transplantation and Desirability’ I had outlined how Nigeria’s attempt to introduce a competition law, and in particular criminalise cartel activity, reveals a (marked) lack of societal inclination towards competition law and prior poor advocacy on the part of government. Social norms are crucial to the effectiveness of law reform. Desirable social norms ensures amongst other things that prohibited conduct will be reported and discovered, even without direct enforcement or investigativeBob Enofe intervention, thereby complementing stretched law enforcement efforts.[1] Such also imply that prosecutors will be willing to enforce and vigorously police provisions of the law where passed, and in the case of the judiciary, stringent sentences will also be applied—or at least not deliberately avoided—so as to facilitate the deterrence potential of the applicable law. Perhaps most crucially for Nigeria, existence of such norms also mean that law makers are incentivised to support reform efforts, while the chances of ‘hijack’ by private interests will be slim. Absent such norms the chances of Nigeria’s competition and cartel criminalisation law, even when passed, could be (remarkably) marginal.

Heightened advocacy, together with a careful selection of test cases once the law is enacted is advanced as capable of remedying the above situation. In the face of sub-par institutions characteristic of the Nigerian context however (including severe limitations in the operation of the rule of law), abilities to so ‘guide’ social norms will be in reality seriously limited. An online petition regarding corruption amongst Nigerian senators, for example, reflect in part difficulties that could frustrate transplantation of cartel criminalisation, absent independent, effective, anti-corruption reforms in the country.

Neoliberal theories of rational actors, sanction and deterrence, imply to large extents a similar existence of contexts as have underlined effectiveness in western societies. In many cases, on the ground realities suggest that theories where transplanted, could be seriously flawed.

As I have argued in another paper currently under review (details to be communicated soon, hopefully!), one size cannot fit all- with developing countries and cartel criminalisation, the point gains extra force. To the extent that fines and other administrative means of enforcement are limited in ability to effectively curtail cartel practices, suggests a need for continuation of relevant research. Criminalisation hardly represents the ‘Golden Fleece’.

Footnote:

[1] See Stephan, Andreas, ‘Cartel laws undermined: Corruption, social norms, and collectivist business cultures’ (2010) Journal of Law and Society 345-367, See Maher, Imelda, The Institutional Structure of Competition Law, in Dowdle, Gillespie and Maher (eds) Asian Capitalism and the Regulation of Competition: Towards a Regulatory Geography of Global Competition Law (Cambridge University Press, 2013) 55, See Gal, Michal  ‘The Ecology of Antitrust: Preconditions for Competition Law Enforcement in Developing Countries.’ (2004) Competition, Competitiveness and Development 20-38.

Criminal Antitrust: South Africa begins to enforce felony provisions

Price-fixers face up to 10 years prison time, starting May 1st

Prison time for executives is now firmly on the not-so-distant horizon in South Africa: As reported in some media outlets, the criminalisation of certain hard-core (and possibly lesser) antitrust offences is finally being implemented in the Republic — notably after more than 8 years of the relevant legislation technically being on the books.

white collar crimeWe are referring to the “phased” implementation of the 2009 Competition Amendment Act.  The legislation technically criminalised hard-core antitrust offences such as bid-rigging or price-fixing cartels.  However, President Zuma has, until now, not yet implemented or effectively signed the criminal provision of the Act (section 73A) into law.

Enter his Economic Development Minister, Ebrahim Patel:

Patel signature on 73AAccording to news reports, Mr. Patel announced today (Thursday), that the criminalisation of the price-fixing cartel offence would henceforth be enforced.  Section 73A will be gazetted tomorrow, 22 April 2016, and hold the force of law from 1 May 2016.  BDLive also reports that even the lesser “abuse of dominance” (or more commonly “monopolisation”) offence would be subject to the criminal penalties, but AAT is awaiting independent confirmation on this subject.  As Andreas Stargard, a U.S.-based Pr1merio antitrust practitioner with a focus on Africa and experience counseling clients in criminal competition matters, explains:

“If Mr. Patel indeed made this statement, and I doubt this, it would signal a departure from the rest of the world’s antitrust regimes: It is highly uncommon to have the monopolisation offence constitute a criminal act — indeed I am aware of no jurisdiction where this is the case.

In the United States, the only conduct constituting a Sherman Act offence pursued by the DOJ as a potential felony involve so-called ‘hard-core’ violations.  This would include horizontal price-fixing among competitors; territorial allocations; output allocations; and bid-rigging.  The same holds true in the UK.  That said, monopolisation or abuse of dominance is simply not among the criminalised antitrust violations elsewhere, and I’d be surprised if South Africa took this unusual path.

We have since been able to confirm that the BDLive report incorrectly refers to abuse of dominance as being criminalised.  AAT has obtained a copy of Mr Patel’s speech which provides clearly only for cartel conduct to be subjected to imprisonment:

“We are confident that because our work on cartels over the past five years has given clarity in the market on what collusion entails and what kind of acts falls within prohibited practices, we can now step up our efforts to the next level in our endeavor to combat corruption, cartels and anti-competitive conduct that raise prices and keep businesses and new entrants out of local markets.

Accordingly, government will tomorrow gazette a Presidential Proclamation that brings into effect certain sections of the Competition Amendment Act, with effect from 1 May 2016, which make it a criminal offence for directors or managers of a firm to collude with their competitors to fix prices, divide markets among themselves or collude in tenders or to acquiesce in collusion and they expose themselves to time in jail if convicted.”

The Patel announcements come ahead of his upcoming budget vote speech, and as he has shown in recent months, Mr. Patel is a proud advocate for tougher competition enforcement in the country.  “We want to make sure that it just does not make sense to collude,” he is reported as saying today.  This follows the Minister’s speech during the Parliament debate in February, where he announced that, “we will now introduce measures shortly to make it a criminal offence in any industry to collude and fix-prices. It will send a message to everyone that we mean business on stamping out corruption and collusion. We must build competitive strengths through innovation, not through sitting in rooms somewhere fixing tenders, prices and contracts.”

White-collar crime: it pays, but is getting riskier

white collar crime 2We live in the era of the Panama Papers, where the notion of white-collar business people going to jail is not an entirely unlikely outcome for some.  Antitrust offences, however, have historically not been enforced worldwide as stringently as public corruption or tax-evasion matters, for instance.  Key jurisdictions with criminalisation of competition offences remain few, notably the U.S. and the UK.

In South Africa, since at least 2014, both Competition Commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele and Minister Patel have been engaging in discussions on how and when to implement the Act “to ensure that the necessary institutional capacity is available to apply the [criminal] amendments.”  While some provisions (relating to the agency’s market-inquiry powers) went into effect in 2013, the criminalisation provisions remain unimplemented to date — but this is about to change.

During these negotiations, as reported on AAT, the minister and SACC admitted in a remarkable self-assessment that the Commission then lacked “the institutional capacity needed to comply with the higher burden of proof in criminal cases.”  One notable aspect of potential discord lies in not only in the different standard of proof in civil vs. criminal matters (“more probable than not” vs. “beyond a reasonable doubt”), but perhaps more importantly can be found on the procedural side, preventing rapid implementation of the law: There has been historic friction between various elements of the RSA’s police forces and (special) prosecutorial services, and the power to prosecute crimes notably remains within the hands of the National Prosecuting Authority, supported in its investigations by the South African Police Service.

History & Legislative Background – and a bit of Advice from the U.S.

Starting in the spring and summer of 2008, the rumoured legislative clamp-down on corrupt & anti-competitive business practices by the government made the RSA business papers’ headlines.

During a presentation Mr. Stargard gave at a Johannesburg conference in September that year (“Criminalising Competition Law: A New Era of ‘Antitrust with Teeth’ in South Africa? Lessons Learned from the U.S. Perspective“), he quoted a few highlights among them, such as “Competition Bill to Pave Way for Criminal Liability”, “Tough on directors”, “Criminalisation of directors by far most controversial”, “Bosses Must Pay Fines Themselves”, “Likely to give rise to constitutional challenges”, and “Disqualification from directorships … very career limiting”.

Stargard, whose practice includes criminal and civil antitrust work, having represented South African Airways in the global “Air Cargo Cartel” investigations, also notes that  international best-practice recommendations all highlight the positive effect of criminal antitrust penalties. For example, the OECD’s Hard-Core Cartel Report recommended that governments consider the introduction and imposition of criminal antitrust sanctions against individuals to enhance deterrence and incentives to cooperate through leniency programmes.  Then-DOJ antitrust chief  Tom Barnett said in 2008, the year South Africa introduced its legislation: “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.”

Mr. Stargard points out the following recommendations to serve as guide-posts for the Commission going forward in its “new era” of criminal enforcement:

Cornerstones of a successful criminal antitrust regime

  • 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.

What lies ahead?

After 1 May, the penalties for violating Section 73A of the Competition Amendment Act will range from a period of up to 10 years in prison and/or a fine of up to R500 000.00.  It appears that the introduction of criminal provisions will not have a retrospective effect, but will only apply prospectively from 1 May 2016 onward.

robber barons

Robber barons…

The introduction of criminal sanctions for cartel conduct raise several constitutional concerns. It is likely that, in the event of the imposition of criminal sanctions, the constitutional validity of the relevant Competition Amendment Act provisions will be challenged. In particular, section 73A(5) of the Amendment Act, introduces a reverse onus on the accused, in that the onus for rebutting the Competition Tribunal of Competition Appeal Court’s conclusion rests with the accused in criminal proceedings. The reverse onus’ constitutional validity is questionable given the constitutional right to a fair trial and the right to be presumed innocent.

John Oxenham, also with Pr1merio, notes that the “criminalisation of cartel conduct is a development which needs to be carefully considered and well planned before its official introduction due to the imminent effects it will have on current South African competition law.” The successful prosecution of cartel conduct rests heavily on the efficiency of corporate leniency policies. The introduction of criminal sanctions and in turn the National Prosecuting Authority will undoubtedly have an effect on the current corporate leniency policies. It is important to consider granting the staff of a company applying for corporate leniency in relation to cartel activity ‘full immunity’ from criminal prosecution in order to encourage companies to come forward and not debilitate the very purpose of corporate leniency policies. The careful integration of criminal sanctions is therefore vital in ensuring that the very purpose of its introduction, namely to deter corruption and anti-competitive conduct, is achieved.

Update [22 April 2016]: As anticipated, the South African government gazetted [published] the official document starting the era of criminal antitrust enforcement under section 73A as of today, signed 18 April 2016:

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South Africa- Competition Commission conducts third dawn raid this year

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Ending off a year of numerous dawn raids, the Commission announced yesterday in a press statement that it had conducted a search and seizure / dawn raid operation at the offices of InvestChem (Pty) Ltd (“InvestChem”) and Akulu Marchon (Pty) Ltd (“Akulu Marchon”) in Kempton Park, Johannesburg. The firms manufacture and supply a range of surfactant products. Surfactants may act as detergents, wetting agents, emulsifiers, foaming agents, dishwashing liquids, soaps, car cleaning products and dispersants.
InvestChem is the South African subsidiary of Inchem Holdings Ltd, which is a Bermuda-based company which has other subsidiaries based in the USA and Portugal. InvestChem develops, manufactures and supplies a range of surfactant products which are used in the detergent and toiletry industries.
Akulu Marchon, which is one of the businesses of AECI Chemicals, supplies chemical raw materials for cosmetics, toiletry and detergent products in Southern Africa. These products include petroleum jelly and white mineral oils for the South African ethnic skin and hair care markets, locally produced and imported specialty surfactants for household, personal care products and chemical specialties for the personal care and cosmetic industries.
The Commission indicated that the dawn raid formed part of the Commission’s ongoing investigation into collusive conduct in the market for the production and supply of a range of surfactants products used as input materials in the manufacture of blended household detergents, cosmetics and toiletry products.
According to the Commission, from 2003, the parties held meetings and agreed to fix the prices for surfactants and allocated customers between each other which is prohibited by the South African Competition Act and the Commission understands the alleged conduct is currently ongoing.
The Commissioner, Tembinkosi Bonakele stated the following in relation to the dawn raid, “I believe that the information that will be obtained from today’s operation will enable the Commission to determine whether or not the parties have indeed engaged in collusive conduct. However, as part of any investigation, we also wish to urge anyone, be it business or individuals with further information to come forward and assist the Commission in concluding this investigation”.
Following a four year dawn raid “drought”, the Commission had conducted a dawn raid in July 2014 at the offices of Precision and Sons (“Precision”), Eldan Auto Body (“Eldan”) in Pretoria West, as well as the Vehicle Accident Assessment Centre (“VAAC”) in Centurion. Precision and Eldan’s business activities include panel beating, spray painting and towing of vehicles and they are approved auto body repairers to Original Equipment Manufacturers. In April 2014, the Commission conducted a dawn raid at the offices of Unilever South Africa (Pty) Ltd and Sime Darby’s respective South African offices, in relation to the Commission’s investigation into alleged collusive conduct in the product markets for the manufacture and supply of edible oils and baking fats to both wholesale and retail customers.

Antitrust amnesty: new regime to go online soon

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Kenya to become latest competition jurisdiction with cartel leniency scheme

As Mugambi Mutegi of the Business Daily reports, Kenya is the latest antitrust jurisdiction to embrace a self-reporting leniency programme.

Mr Wang’ombe Kariuki, director of the CAK

Self-reporting of “hard-core” competition-law offences (such as price-fixing cartel conduct, market division, bid rigging, or group boycotts among horizontal competitors) has long been a staple of antitrust enforcement in the most developed jurisdictions, including the United States and the European Union.  In South Africa, cartel-whistleblowing leniency has just passed its 10th anniversary, and in the EU, the European Commission’s “Notice” on the non-imposition of fines in certain cartel cases (i.e., the EU’s leniency regime) recently celebrated its 18th birthday — nowadays, more than 75% of the EC’s cartel matters are uncovered thanks to one or many cartel members “snitching” on their counterparts, in exchange for full or partial amnesty from antitrust prosecution and attendant fines.

The Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) has recently upped its rhetoric, threatening criminal sanctions against various business sectors’ potential cartel members and disputing jurisdiction of the multi-national, but still feeble, COMESA competition authority in merger cases.

In Africa, Kenya (AAT archive on CAK issues here) is now becoming a new member of the “Leniency Club”, rewarding whistleblowers with eased penalties for volunteering relevant tips and information on the workings of the cartel.  The CAK is acting to implement the provision of the Kenyan Finance Bill 2014, which allows it to terminate cartel investigations with lighter punishment for whistleblowers, all the way to a full pardon.

“The Authority (CAK) may operate a leniency programme where an undertaking that voluntarily discloses the existence of an agreement or practice that is prohibited by the Competition Act and co-operates…in the investigation of the agreement may not be subject to all or part of a fine…”

The agency’s web site — which otherwise (unusually) refers to the Business Daily article quoted here, instead of issuing its own press release — tersely provides as follows:

Cartel firms get amnesty in new CAK regulation

The competition regulator has drafted a law that will see whistleblower companies and their directors get off with lighter punishment for volunteering information that helps to break up cartels.

The Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) says introduction of this law, which is already in the Finance Bill 2014, will attract informers that can help to bust unlawful business agreements between cartels and other secretive pacts that facilitate anti-competitive behaviour.

Whistleblowers whose evidence leads to the successful termination of such agreements and punishment (fines and jail sentences) of the participants will either get reduced fines or full pardon.

The CAK’s Director General, Francis Wang’ombe Kariuki, is quoted as saying that the authority’s is merely awaiting Parliament’s amendment of the law, and that “[t]he settlement policy we have drafted includes offering leniency to the directors of companies who come forward individually or as a group to report on cartels or unlawful business pacts“.