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New regime Immunity deals for crooked businesspeople if they snitch on fellow price-fixers

The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) will be more lenient to firms that cooperate in cartel probes

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The State watchdog for competition is offering crooked businesspeople immunity from prosecution and reduced financial penalties if they are willing to snitch on other members of anti-competitive cartels.

The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) has laid out the process for obtaining leniency under new laws designed to stamp out illegal – but hard to prove – corporate behaviour such as price-fixing and bid-rigging.

The new regime, which the CCPC detailed Monday and is due to come into force this year, has been enabled by the recently passed Competition Amendment Bill 2022 and signals a major shift in the State’s approach to corporate crime.

In seeking to get wrongdoers to turn on each other out of self-interest, the CCPC will now potentially be able to roll up entire anti-competitive networks rather than just individual violators.

The new powers to grant leniency, which generously reward cooperation with authorities, could potentially induce competition among law-breaking businesses to flip first against their co-conspirators to secure the best available deal.

The CCPC is even allowing those who have personally materially benefited from wrongdoing to make an agreement with investigators to avoid punishment.

The policy, described in a series of documents published yesterday, provides full immunity only to the first participant in a cartel to turn.

That could mean protection for individuals from prosecution in criminal court as well as the elimination of fines of up to €10m or 10pc of a company’s turnover if they confess and cooperate.

Subsequent participants who come clean may get reduced penalties, but could also be left completely in the cold if earlier cooperating businesses provide all the evidence required to bring cases against the rest of a cartel.

The CCPC has already set up a hotline for directors and company executives who want to start the process, which will allow them to set a “marker” for cooperating.

This means the undertaking will have protection from investigation while the CCPC gathers information and assesses the case.

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To be granted conditional leniency, however, a cooperating business must disclose the full facts of anti-competitive practices along with details of all other cartel members.

Applicants found to be withholding information will be rejected, exposing the business to investigation or the possibility of co-conspirators making their own applications.

Once in accepted into the programme, a business or individual must immediately end its involvement with any illegal activity and keep cooperating until all proceedings against all parties have concluded.

Participants must also keep their cooperation secret or destroy any evidence once the process has started.

There are two types of cooperating undertaking, according to the CCPC.

The first, which can access full immunity, is a firm that proactively submits evidence enabling the CCPC to execute searches of other businesses involved in a cartel, leading to actionable information.

The second type is a business that admits wrongdoing after being namedby another party. It could win reduced penalties for giving material evidence.

The CCPC has opened consultation to stakeholders on the new policy through March 11.

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