compliance, criminal AT, leniency, South Africa

Winds of Change? DOJ approach to compliance & lessons for South Africa

By Jemma Muller, Junior Contributor

In July 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division announced new steps towards incentivizing antitrust compliance programs. According to the new model, compliance programs will be evaluated by the Division’s Prosecutors at the charging and sentencing stage in order to make a determination whether or not to recommend a sentencing reduction founded on a company’s efficacious antitrust compliance program.

This transition away from the pure all-or-nothing corporate leniency approach, towards a more inclusive view of all circumstances relevant to the antitrust violation, had been over five years in the making, says Andreas Stargard, a competition practitioner: “For years, this change was debated by experts at conferences and round-table discussions.  Moreover, senior DOJ leadership had been hinting strongly at embracing this more holistic approach, such as Bill Baer in his 2014 Georgetown Law speech and various other enforcers over time.  The current administration has merely sealed the deal,” he notes, pointing to Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim’s July speech entitled “Wind of Change: A New Model for Incentivizing Antitrust Compliance Programs.”  Mr. Delrahim noted that ‘the Antitrust Division is committed to rewarding corporate efforts to invest in and instill a culture of compliance’, and in doing so takes cognizance of company’s efforts to invest substantially in vigorous compliance programs (Justice News, ‘Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim Delivers Remarks at the New York University School of Law Program on Corporate Compliance and Enforcement’, 11 July 2019).  Mr. Stargard notes that the Antitrust Division is not truly breaking new ground here, as other countries such as Great Britain and France have long advocated for, and recognized the value of, voluntary programs.  In addition, similar changes in government attitudes vis-à-vis internal corporate compliance regimes have already occurred in other divisions of the Department of Justice, such as the Fraud and Criminal divisions.  “Indeed, even Mr. Delrahim acknowledged the long U.S. history of recognizing that ‘prevention is better than a cure’ by invoking Benjamin Franklin’s famous catchphrase in his speech,” he says.

Incentivizing a compliance program is beneficial for consumers as well as companies, as a company with an effective compliance program is likely to detect violations more promptly, thus not only curtailing the resultant harm from the violations, but also allowing those companies the most probable chance of being the first to partake in and secure corporate leniency.  The stance in this approach therefore seeks to ensure prevention, and as a result less ensuing harm, which translates into less efforts and resources spent on enforcement.

To guide prosecutors in evaluating compliance programs, three essential questions should be asked, namely;

(1) Is the corporation’s compliance program well designed?

 (2) Is the program being applied earnestly and in good faith?

 (3) Does the corporation’s compliance program work?”

It is also useful that guidance is given on what elements an effective antitrust compliance program consists of in order for a company to structure its program accordingly.  These elements consist of:

  • The design and completeness of the program;
  • The corporation’s principles of compliance;
  • The resources allocated to antitrust compliance and those responsible for compliance;
  • Risk assessment procedures;
  • Training and communication to employees on compliance;
  • Techniques for monitoring and auditing;
  • Reporting procedures;
  • Incentives for compliance as well as a discipline framework; and
  • Procedures for remediation.

It is important to note that a comprehensive compliance program does not in itself guarantee a sentencing reduction, as Antitrust Division prosecutors are generally tasked with having a holistic outlook, i.e., taking into account all of the specific facts of each case.  Said Delrahim: “The Antitrust Division’s new approach to compliance programs should not be misconstrued as an automatic pass for corporate misconduct.”

With regards to administrative penalties specifically, the new model provides for a possible statutory fine reduction for a company’s recurrence prevention efforts. In considering a reduction, prosecutors will take cognizance of measures taken by a company in discipling those responsible for a particular violation, as well as measures taken to ensure such a violation does not reoccur. Here, prosecutors will consider: the steps senior management has taken to revise the compliance program, as well as the involvement in training and incentivizing compliance; improvements to the pre-existing compliance program; if no compliance program is in place then the design of a compliance program; and lastly the enforcement and/or creation of disciplinary procedures.

Do these winds of change blow all the way east, across the Atlantic, and reach African shores?  Unlike the U.S., South Africa does not — thus far — have a similar approach to incentivizing compliance programs. This means that the cited benefits of incentivizing compliance programs are not necessarily gained. If South African authorities were to implement a similar approach, it would encourage a culture of compliance; it would be beneficial for companies and consumers; and it would assist companies in designing and implementing effective compliance programs which would assist in early detection of violations and thereby assist those companies wishing to apply for corporate leniency in being the first in line potentially to receive immunity.

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AAT exclusive, cartels, collusion, criminal AT, politics, South Africa

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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BRICS, cartels, civil action, collusion, criminal AT, leniency, South Africa

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.

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AAT exclusive, BRICS, criminal AT, dominance, draft, legislation, Patel, politics, South Africa, Uncategorized

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.

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BRICS, collusion, criminal AT, South Africa, trade associations

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.

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BRICS, cartels, collusion, criminal AT, Dawn Raid, South Africa, Transportation, Uncategorized

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.

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AAT exclusive, BRICS, cartels, criminal AT, Extra-judicial Factors, market study, mergers, South Africa, WRAP (the)

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)

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

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