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Supplier Collusion on the Agenda at NPI Conference

At the National Procurement Institute conference in Atlanta earlier this month, delegates (public sector, mainly from US cities) heard an interesting presentation from Zac Trotter, a Trial Attorney from the Antitrust Division at the US Department of Justice. He stressed that his comments were not representative of the Department, which I guess he has to say, but he gave a very clear and engaging explanation of his fascinating area of expertise – fighting against supplier collusion. His focus was on the mechanics of collusion, with additional comments on how procurement professionals can look out for it.

Competition is key to getting value for money, he said, something we can all agree with. But collusion does happen, and because of its secretive nature, can go on for years, or even decades, without being discovered. And public procurement is a big target for fraud of this sort because of the amounts of money involved. As a US judge recently said, “Like bears to honey, white collar fraudsters are drawn to billion-dollar federal programmes”!

In US law, the Sherman Act of 1890 (Section 1) defines the attributes of the collusion offence as:

  • Agreement or conspiracy to restrain trade (that is subject to interpretation and clarification as it is a very broad definition)
  • Participants knowingly joined – and intended to agree (as conspirators)
  • Interstate or foreign commerce (a “technical” provision)
  • Statute of limitations is 5 years

Prosecutors need to establish agreement between two or more people for a case. Interestingly, juries are more inclined to convict if there is evidence that conspirators knew what they were doing is wrong. But there doesn’t always need to be “hard” documented agreement to collude. A “course of conduct” can show guilt – for instance, if one firm always bids low, whilst two bid high but become sub-contractors to the winner. If that keeps happening, it might provide strong circumstantial evidence for prosecution. For buyers, consistent high bidding from the same firm should be a “red flag” for procurement – why would the firm bother if they keep losing, unless there was something else in it for them?

The three types of collusive behaviour were described by Trotter as;

  1. Allocation agreements
  2. Bid rigging agreements
  3. Price fixing agreements

Allocation agreements mean suppliers colluding to “divide the pie” in a particular manner. That might be based on splitting business by markets,  geography, customer (big, small), or products. Watch out for when a supplier doesn’t bid when you might expect them to. (e.g. they bid for a men’s uniform contract but not for  women’s uniforms). Or perhaps a competitor pulls out of a market for no obvious reason.

Bid rigging – here, suppliers raise the price of products or services above a true “market” value, effectively setting an artificial price. There may also be pre-determined winners and losers of contracts. Bid rotation is a technique where suppliers agree to a defined pattern of different firms winning work, or divided up in other ways (clearly, this is linked to the ”allocation” technique). Then we see “cover bids”, where suppliers submit deliberately expensive bids to make it look like there is competition, or “bid suppression”, where suppliers refuse to bid in order to reduce competition. So buyers should watch out for firms saying, “we’re too busy to bid”.

Price fixing – means the customer has no genuine way to negotiate, as firms fix or otherwise determine the price at which products are sold. That might mean coordinating price increases, or setting price floors, or a new surcharge that everyone in the industry implements together.  

There are big penalties now in the US for this behaviour. Participants can go to jail and there are potentially very large fines. Penalties of up to $100m have been imposed fairly recently on sectors  from canned tuna to cancer treatments. The courts can also award “restitutions” to those affected, suppliers can be barred from government contracts and there have been civil lawsuits too. Nevertheless, collusion continues in many industries.

(Part 2 to follow)

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