The Antitrust Division of the Justice Department has announced that the former president of a paving and asphalt company based in Montana has pleaded guilty to criminal charges of attempting to monopolize the market for highway crack-sealing services in that state and Wyoming.
It is encouraging to see DOJ take aggressive action against an individual executive, especially since this action was the first criminal case to be brought under the Section 2 anti-monopoly provisions of the Sherman Act in decades.
Yet it is difficult to get too excited about the case, given that it involves a pretty small culprit in a minor market. DOJ should set its sights higher.
In doing so, prosecutors may want to look back at a case that shook up the corporate world 60 years ago. In what became known as the great electrical equipment conspiracy, dozens of executives from companies such as Westinghouse and General Electric were charged with colluding to fix prices and rig bids in the sale of transformers and other gear to industrial customers.
The defendants included a variety of vice presidents, division managers and other fairly high-level managers in the companies. Faced with incontrovertible evidence gathered by the DOJ during the Eisenhower Administration, they pleaded guilty or no contest and threw themselves on the mercy of the court. As Time magazine reported in 1961, defense attorneys argued for leniency:
One by one, as the sentencing went on, lawyers rose to describe their clients as pillars of the community. William S. Ginn, 45, vice president of General Electric, was the director of a boys’ club in Schenectady, N.Y. and the chairman of a campaign to build a new Jesuit seminary in Lenox, Mass. His lawyer pleaded that Ginn not be put “behind bars with common criminals who have been convicted of embezzlement and other serious crimes.”
Federal District Judge J. Cullen Ganey was not swayed. He sentenced Ginn and half a dozen other defendants to 30-day jail sentences, while many of the others received suspended sentences for reasons of age or health. A month was not a long stretch, but it was shocking at the time to see prominent businessmen being led off in handcuffs. In fact, it was the first time in the 70 years following the enactment of the Sherman Act that executives of large companies were incarcerated for antitrust offenses.
In the ensuing years, DOJ vacillated in its position on individual criminal charges for cartel activity. In the 1970s Congress revised the Sherman Act to allow violations to be prosecuted as felonies rather than just misdemeanors, but those provisions were not always applied.
Today the Antitrust Division regularly brings charges against individuals under Section 1 of the Sherman Act for price-fixing and bid-rigging, but the case volume is low and the sentences are not much harsher than those meted out by Judge Ganey. Moreover, the defendants in those cases are rarely high-level executives at large companies.
DOJ’s new willingness to bring Section 2 criminal cases is encouraging, but in order to shake up the business world the way the electrical equipment prosecutions did, the Antitrust Division will have to take aim at high-level executives at some of the mega-corporations that dominate our economy.