As if over-reaching under the False Claims Act wasn’t bad enough, government contractors will now be subject to a new area of investigation. On November 5, 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice announced its new Procurement Collusion Strike Force, focusing on ferreting out antitrust violations in the government contracts arena.
The PCSF will focus on deterring, detecting, investigating, and prosecuting antitrust crimes under government contracts. These areas include bid-rigging conspiracies and related fraudulent schemes that undermine competition in government procurement. The new strike force is composed of 13 U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, and investigators from the FBI, Office of Inspector General offices of the Department of Defense OIG, the U.S. Postal Service, and other federal agencies.
Buoyed by a guilty plea by five South Korean oil companies, which netted $156 million in criminal fines and $205 million in separate civil settlements, the DOJ Antitrust Division believes this is just the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, in a speech to the American Bar Association, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard A. Powers cited a study that eliminating bid rigging could reduce procurement costs by 20% or more. Government contractors, most of whom likely have a profit rate of 10% or less, will find that figure hard to believe.
The problem that government contractors will face is this: If DOJ believes procurement costs are being inflated by 20% due to bid rigging, once DOJ starts looking for it, DOJ will find it, whether it exists or not. And DOJ is looking for criminal antitrust violations, with penalties that include up to 10 years imprisonment, steep fines, and double damages. Corporations can be fined up to $100 million.