'Every great result we get is a result of the work they do,' DOJ's departing Snyder says of criminal antitrust team

20 June 2017 5:55am

19 June 2017. By Leah Nylen.

After 14 years, Brent Snyder stepped down from the US Department of Justice on Friday, turning in his badge as the US' top criminal antitrust prosecutor.

Don't expect his spurs to stay hung up for long, though. Later this summer, Snyder will move 8,000 miles across the globe to become Hong Kong's competition chief, the third individual to hold that post since the island's law came into force less than two years ago.

As deputy assistant attorney general for criminal antitrust enforcement for the past three and a half years, Snyder said he takes an enormous amount of pride in the work of the antitrust division's prosecutors, who have brought some of the biggest and most complex price-fixing cases in the agency's history in recent years.

"The true accomplishments of the division are the work of the attorneys and paralegals who do the cases. Every great result we get is a result of the work they do," Snyder said in an interview last week in his office at Justice Department headquarters. "Personally, I'm ridiculously proud of our attorneys. I literally, at times, get teary-eyed to hear their reports of cases and the things they are doing. I love them. I love our attorneys. And I'm going to miss them very much."

Snyder took over the top criminal antitrust enforcement job in November 2013, replacing Scott Hammond, who had held the position for eight years. In assuming the deputy assistant attorney general post, Snyder became only the fifth individual to lead criminal antitrust enforcement over the past four decades, overseeing about 100 prosecutors, approving indictments, grand jury proceedings and leniency agreements, as well as spearheading criminal policy work.

Snyder praised the work of division's attorneys in a number of major cases — such as the agency's long-running investigation into price-fixing among auto parts manufacturers, which has resulted in charges against 65 individuals and 47 companies, and the probe into manipulation of foreign exchange rates, where five major banks pleaded guilty and agreed to pay $2.5 billion in criminal fines.

But he also applauded some of the division's smallest cases.

"I love the little cases that people manage to grind out the old-fashioned way," Snyder said, highlighting one that involved price-fixing of posters sold through Amazon Marketplace, a conspiracy that only affected about $175,000 in commerce. "There was some very quality work that went into that by the attorneys."

Snyder described criminal policy work as being among his most important accomplishments as deputy assistant attorney general, particularly the update this year to the division's "frequently asked questions" on leniency. Under the leniency program, the antitrust division grants full immunity to the first member of a cartel to come forward and admit to antitrust violations.

During Snyder's tenure, the division has also begun to offer some credit in sentencing for corporate compliance programs.

"I believe compliance is very important and we [at DOJ] have a role to play in incentivizing companies to both adopt remediation programs and in changing corporate culture in companies where they've been involved in criminal antitrust violations," Snyder said. "The antitrust division has taken some real positive steps in that area."

The antitrust division's criminal team has seen a significant uptick in the number of trials over the past few years, the majority of which have resulted in convictions. On Friday, a jury convicted Georgia real estate investor Douglas Purdy of bid-rigging and bank fraud, the antitrust division's eighth criminal trial win in a row.

During Snyder's tenure, antitrust prosecutors have lost only one trial — a 2015 case against Thomas Farmer, the former vice president for Crowley Liner Services, who was accused of fixing prices on cargo shipments to and from mainland US to Puerto Rico.

Another 2015 case, involving bid-rigging of tax lien auctions in New Jersey, ended in a split verdict with jurors convicting one individual while acquitting two other men and two companies.

Since then, though, antitrust prosecutors have been on a roll, winning a number of cases against real estate investors who rigged bids at public foreclosure auctions, against a group of defendants who fixed prices on Puerto Rico school bus contracts and against a pair of Rabobank traders convicted of manipulating the London Interbank Offered Rate.

The uptick in trials doesn't appear to be slowing anytime soon. Prosecutors are likely to head to trial against an heir location firm and its co-owner, who are accused of engaging in price-fixing and market allocation, as well as a pair of executives accused of fixing prices on water treatment chemicals. Next year, the agency will likely see its first case against a large corporate defendant since 2011 when it heads to trial against Japan's Maruyasu over charges the company fixed prices on automotive steel tubes.

With so many attorneys focused on trials, the division has less staff available to work on developing cases, Snyder said.

"When you have so many resources invested in trial, it's pulling resources away from your investigations," Snyder said. "There is that tradeoff. … I think that if we continue to see more trials in the future, that is going to be a challenge."

Antitrust prosecutors also face hurdles in keeping abreast of technology, Snyder said, hinting that some probes coming down the pike will involve new forms of technology such as communication apps.

"That's going to be a big issue going forward," he said of technology, "not just for the antitrust division. It's an open discussion across law enforcement that these new forms, and ever evolving forms, of technology create issues."

International cooperation in cartel cases must be improved, Snyder said, particularly as more jurisdictions begin to enforce antitrust laws and offer their own leniency programs.

"I think we can become more efficient in the way we conduct our investigations both here, to limit cost, but then across the globe as well," Snyder said. "It's one of those areas of unfinished business that I feel if I had more time I would have liked to put some things into effect to see if we could find new ways of doing things more efficiently to create more convergence across investigations."

ABA 2019