Clarence Olson, an employee of a Minnesota concrete repair and construction company, pleaded guilty on September 27, 2021, to one count of conspiracy to restrain trade in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act. Olson's charge stemmed from alleged bid-rigging by submitting bids for public municipal-level concrete repair and construction contracts in Minnesota. The plea agreement announced by the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice reflects the continued efforts of DOJ's Procurement Collusion Strike Force (PCSF or Strike Force) to detect, investigate, prosecute, and deter antitrust crimes such as bid-rigging and related fraudulent schemes in the grant, government procurement and program funding areas. In November 2019, DOJ announced the creation of the multi-agency Strike Force, which led the investigation into Olson and the other members of the conspiracy. Olson's plea agreement represents the Strike Force's first municipal-level prosecution. Although the Strike Force has shown its muscle by investigating procurement offenses that touch upon federal contracts, Olson's prosecution demonstrates its appetite to go after fraud schemes both big and small.
Though Olson could face a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $1 million fine, the government recommended that Olson serve between eight and 14 months in prison and pay a $20,000 fine. Olson agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in their ongoing investigation into the bid-rigging of Minnesota government entities. He will provide information and documents to the government and make himself available for interviews and testimony as part of his plea.
According to the plea agreement, between September 2012 and late July 2017, Olson participated in a conspiracy to suppress and eliminate competition by rigging bids for concrete repair and construction contracts solicited by Minnesota government entities, including the City of Eden Prairie, City of Plymouth, Eden Prairie Schools, and Wayzata Public Schools. Per the plea agreement, on behalf of "Company A," Olson collaborated with a person referenced as "Individual B"—the CEO for an unnamed Minnesota-based "Company B"—in preparing, coordinating and submitting bids for municipal contracts. Under Minnesota law, municipalities are required to obtain two or more bid proposals from independent bidders before awarding a construction contract for any amount above $25,000.
Olson admitted that he and Individual B communicated with each other about the contracts and that Individual B requested that Olson submit quotes for the contracts at a price provided by Individual B. Olson agreed and Company A submitted quotes that were intentionally higher than Company B's quotes. This created the appearance that the two companies competed for the various concrete repair and construction contracts. As a result, the Minnesota government entities awarded Company B the contracts at collusive and noncompetitive prices.
Acting Assistant Attorney General for DOJ's Antitrust Division Richard A. Powers stated that Olson's plea agreement "demonstrates the Antitrust Division's commitment to ensuring the integrity of government procurement at all levels of government. Bid-rigging schemes that target local government contracts harm taxpayers, and people who take part in these conspiracies will be held accountable for their actions." This plea agreement reflects the PCSF's continued ability to use prosecutorial tools to identify and investigate bid-rigging conspiracies that target federal, state and local procurement processes. To date, the Strike Force is credited with 24 indictments, six plea agreements, three sentences, and more than $23.5 million in fines and restitution.
With the prospect of massive federal spending in the realm of physical and social infrastructure, the Strike Force may have ample opportunity to investigate incidents of collusion and procurement fraud. Much of this money will be spent by the federal government, state agencies and municipalities. The potential for stepped-up enforcement of antitrust and related laws against companies operating in the public procurement space will require contractors and subcontractors to take protective measures. These measures may include instituting and utilizing robust compliance policies and coordinating training focused on preventing anticompetitive conduct and ensuring procurement integrity in connection with the bidding process.
For questions about the Procurement Collusion Strike Force and the Antitrust Division's focus on anticompetitive behavior in the government contracts sphere, please reach out to the authors or any of their colleagues in Arnold & Porter's Antitrust, Anti-Corruption or White Collar Defense & Investigations practice groups. You can also check out our previous posts about the Strike Force. Earlier this year, we provided an outlook as to what to expect from the Strike Force in 2021 and updates on the Strike Force's actions prosecuting procurement fraud at the state, federal and international level.
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