Articles Posted in Department of Justice

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Author: Jon Cieslak

In 1993, the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division created its Leniency Program by issuing its Corporate Leniency Policy. The Leniency Program provides means for a company to avoid criminal prosecution for violating federal antitrust laws—such as price fixing, bid rigging, and market allocation—by self-reporting the illegal activity to the Antitrust Division.

Since then, the Leniency Program has been a major impetus for criminal antitrust cases in the United States. In fact, because the Antitrust Division’s criminal prosecutions are almost always followed by civil litigation filed by private plaintiffs, it is widely understood (though not always confirmed) that some of the largest antitrust cases of the past thirty years started with leniency applications, including In re TFT-LCD (“Flat Panel”) Antitrust Litigation and In re Sulfuric Acid Antitrust Litigation.

Although some have lately questioned the Leniency Program’s effectiveness, the Leniency Program is widely considered a success and a key part of the Antitrust Division’s enforcement toolbox. Accordingly, any time a company discovers that it may have engaged in conduct violating the antitrust laws, it should consider participation in the Leniency Program.

How does a company qualify for the Leniency Program?

The Leniency Program provides two ways in which a company can obtain leniency, commonly referred to as “Type A” leniency and “Type B” leniency. The key difference between the two is that Type A leniency is only available before the Antitrust Division opens an investigation of the illegal activity, whereas Type B leniency can be obtained even after an investigation is opened. Flowing from this key difference, the requirements to obtain each type of leniency vary slightly.

To obtain Type A leniency, a company must:

  1. Report the illegal activity before the Antitrust Division receives information about the illegal activity;
  2. Take “prompt and effective” steps to end its involvement in the illegal activity as soon as it was discovered;
  3. Report the illegal activity “with candor and completeness” and cooperate with the Antitrust Division’s investigation;
  4. Confess to its wrongdoing on behalf of the company, “as opposed to isolated confessions of individual executives or officials;”
  5. Provide restitution to injured parties if possible; and
  6. Not be a ringleader or originator of the illegal activity.

Type B leniency shares some of these requirements, but has several of its own. To obtain Type B leniency, the following conditions must be met:

  1. The company is the first “to come forward and qualify for leniency;”
  2. The Antitrust Division does not already have evidence against the company “that is likely to result in a sustainable conviction;”
  3. As with Type A, the company ended its involvement in the illegal activity;
  4. As with Type A, the company cooperates with the investigation;
  5. As with Type A, the company confesses its wrongdoing;
  6. As with Type A, the company provides restitution; and
  7. The Antitrust Division determines that leniency “would not be unfair to others” under the circumstances.

What are the benefits of the Leniency Program?

While the Leniency Program’s requirements are considerable—it is no small thing to self-report and admit to an antitrust crime—the program offers substantial benefits to those that qualify. First and foremost, a successful leniency application means that the Antitrust Division will not bring criminal charges against the company for the reported activity. Although there are other ways to avoid charges, such as a deferred prosecution agreement, the Leniency Program provides the surest path to immunity.

In addition, if a company qualifies for Type A leniency, all company directors, officers, and employees who admit their involvement and cooperate with the Antitrust Division’s investigation will likewise receive leniency. Under Type B leniency, the Antitrust Division will evaluate leniency for directors, officers, and employees on an individual basis, but still commonly grants leniency.

Finally, a successful leniency application provides benefits in any related civil litigation pursuant to the Antitrust Criminal Penalty Enhancement and Reform Act (ACPERA). An upcoming article will discuss those benefits in detail.

How does a company participate in the Leniency Program?

A company’s participation in the Leniency Program can vary depending on the facts and circumstances of the illegal activity and, in particular, how the Antitrust Division chooses to investigate it. But there are a few common steps you should plan on at the outset.

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Authors: Jim Lerner and Luis Blanquez

Both of the U.S. government agencies responsible for antitrust enforcement (the Department of Justice– “DOJ” and Federal Trade Commission – “FTC”) have review mechanisms available for companies seeking guidance on whether they are likely to take antitrust enforcement action against a proposed agreement or course of conduct: the DOJ has a Business Review process and the FTC has an Advisory Opinion process.

From a practical perspective (and putting aside mandatory Hart-Scott-Rodino merger filings), it is uncommon in the U.S. for parties to submit their agreements to the competition authorities for review before entering the agreement or undertaking the proposed conduct. Except in particular circumstances—such as with complex antitrust and intellectual property issues—most parties decide that the potential antitrust-enforcer guidance is not worth the time and effort involved in seeking such review.

But there are instances in which it does make sense to seek antitrust agency review, so we describe the processes here.

With respect to the DOJ Business Review process, while there has been expedited treatment for collaborations directly related to COVID, the “traditional” Business Review process tends to be lengthy (it can regularly take up to 6 months or more to get through the entire process) and complicated. Applicants for a Business Review letter must make a complete disclosure of all the necessary information about the agreement or collaboration for which a review is requested. This requires background information about the parties and industry, copies of any/all operative documents, detailed statements of any/all collateral oral understandings, and any additional information the Division requests. Depending on how the Division responds, it doesn’t necessarily result in any guarantees about what the Division will or will not do if the described conduct/collaboration goes forward. One other big downside is that the process is truly prospective––that is, it requires that the parties not start their proposed activities until after the Division responds.

The use of FTC Advisory Opinion process is similarly infrequent, also due to narrow set of conditions under which the Commission or the Commission Staff will actually consider such a request. At the linked document set out, the Commission will only consider an Advisory Opinion when (1) the matter involves a substantial or novel question of fact or law and there is no clear Commission or court precedent, or (2) the subject matter of the request and consequent publication of Commission advice is of significant public interest. The request for an advisory opinion must concern a course of action that the requesting party proposes to pursue. That is, the requesting party must intend to engage in the proposed conduct; hypothetical questions or questions about conduct that is already ongoing will not be answered. Furthermore, a proposed course of action must be sufficiently developed for the Commission or its staff to conclude that it is an actual proposal rather than a mere possibility, and to evaluate the proposal based on the description and supporting information provided with the request. At the same time, however, the parties cannot have started their requested conduct. As you can tell, the scope of this tool is very limited.

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Author:  Steven J. Cernak

With the number of vaccinations rising and mask mandates going away, it appears that life might be heading back towards something like the “old normal.” But during the pandemic, businesses and consumers formed new habits. How many of those new actions will continue post-pandemic and how will those changed processes affect antitrust practice? With all the caveats about predicting the future, here is one set of opinions.

Joint Ventures

At the beginning of the pandemic, many law firms chose to remind their readers that antitrust laws still applied and, for instance, price-fixing was still per se illegal. We chose to remind our readers that pro-competitive joint ventures of various sorts have always been fine under the antitrust laws and might prove useful to businesses struggling to survive a pandemic and lockdowns. The DOJ and FTC also reminded everyone that antitrust laws still applied but, to their credit, also pointed to permissible joint ventures. They also streamlined their review processes for parties wanting an advisory opinion on joint efforts related to the pandemic.

Obviously, it is too early to tell if there has been any change in the number of price-fixing and similar conspiracies consummated during the pandemic; however, it does appear that many businesses did use joint ventures to improve efficiency. As of this writing, at least six joint efforts took advantage of DOJ’s streamlined Business Review Letter processes to obtain greater antitrust certainty about their joint efforts. Also, over 160 notices under the National Cooperative Research and Production Act were filed with DOJ and the FTC in the past twelve months. While many of those notices were merely updates from a much smaller number of joint ventures to disclose changes in membership of the consortium, they do provide some evidence that many companies remembered the pro-competitive business benefits of some collaborations of competitors. As businesses look for ways to improve efficiencies in uncertain times, look for these collaborations to continue.

Pricing

Pricing at all levels of distribution sends key signals to consumers, distributors, and manufacturers and so is often an important antitrust topic. As we explained early in the pandemic, however, price gouging is not a violation of the federal antitrust laws. State price gouging laws and contractual provisions were used early in the pandemic to protect consumers from high prices and manufacturers from blame for high prices by authorized and other distributors. Fears of price gouging seemed to fade early in the pandemic and, other than isolated incidents caused by temporary shortages, seem unlikely to return; instead, the pricing issue currently top of mind is general price inflation, a topic not covered by antitrust laws.

Supply Chain Issues—From Just in Time to Just in Case?

At the beginning of the pandemic, it was shortages of toilet paper and other paper products.  Here near the end, it is a shortage of computer chips for motor vehicles (and other products), chicken, and other products. Both the products and the causes of the shortages seem to have changed during the pandemic. The toilet paper shortage was caused by a sudden and extreme temporary increase in demand; the more recent ones are caused by various supply chain and labor issues resulting in multiple and long-term dislocations.

At bottom, many of these dislocations stem from companies trying to implement their interpretations of the Toyota Production System, particularly a just-in-time supply chain. Such supply chain management reduces costs and inefficiencies by eliminating buffer stocks and working closely with a smaller network of suppliers. In normal times, such systems reduce costs; however, they can be fragile and unable to quickly adjust to exogenous supply shocks, like natural disasters or unexpected bankruptcies. All such systems are based on assumptions that such shocks will not take place or that sufficient additional supply can be quickly found and substituted. When those assumptions turn out to be wrong, businesses can suffer.

Will living through these trying times cause businesses to think more about “just-in-case” supply?  Will manufacturers be more likely to object on antitrust grounds to supplier consolidation that leaves one fewer potential, even if not current, supplier?  Will “5-to-4” mergers now be problematic? Will the FTC object to a hospital merger that could reduce supply unlikely to be used except in a pandemic? If businesses, economists, and enforcers modify their thinking on “efficiencies”, merger review results could be different at least on the margins.

Fewer Smoke-Filled Rooms But Not Necessarily Less Price Fixing

Business travel seems to be coming back, though apparently more slowly than personal travel.  As companies and their employees have become more comfortable interacting virtually, it seems unlikely that travel to trade association and other meetings of competitors will soon, if ever, get back to prior levels. If so, there would be fewer opportunities for competitors to physically meet in typical “smoke-filled rooms” or hotel bars or other places where anti-competitive agreements have been hatched in the past. But that does not mean fewer opportunities to collude—it just means the conspirators will use Zoom, WhatsApp or many other communication and messaging methods. Fortunately, DOJ has understood these trends for years, as detailed in the links here.  For counselors and antitrust compliance specialists, we might need to update our training examples.

Zoom—The Next Google? 

Remember when you first discovered Google? Not only how well the search engine worked but how clean the site was, except when it included cute drawings and links like the Santa Tracker on Christmas Eve? Might be hard to remember now but the company whose motto was “Don’t be evil” seemed to be universally popular. Now? Well, it still remains at least respected and used by a lot of people, but it has also gathered enemies across the political spectrum and around the globe, often for alleged antitrust violations.

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Author: Jarod Bona

In the market, there are many ways to buy and sell products or services.

For example, if you want to purchase some whey protein powder, you can walk into a store, go to the protein or smoothie-ingredient section, examine the prices of the different brands, and if one of them is acceptable to you, carry that protein powder to the register and pay the listed price.

Similarly, if you want to purchase a Fitbit Sense, you find the Fitbit manufacturer’s product in a store or online and pay the listed price. Oftentimes products like this, from a specific manufacturer, are the same price wherever you look because of resale price maintenance or a Colgate policy (to be clear, I am not aware of whether Fitbit has any such program or policy). But these vertical price arrangements are not the subject of this article.

Another approach—and the true subject of this article—is to accept bids to purchase a product or service. Governments often send out what are called Requests for Proposals (RFPs) to fulfill the joint goals of obtaining the best combination of price and service/product and to minimize favoritism (which doesn’t always work).

But private companies and individuals might also request bids. Have you ever renovated your house and sought multiple bids from contractors? If so, that is what we are talking about. If you’ve done this as a real-estate investor, you should read our real-estate blog too.

What is Bid-Rigging?

Let’s say you are a bidder and you know that two other companies are also bidding to supply tablets and related services to a business that provides its employees with tablets. The bids are blind, which means you don’t know what the other companies will bid.

You will likely calculate your own costs, add some profit margin, try to guess what the other companies will bid, then bid the best combination of price, product, and services that you can so the buyer picks your company.

This approach puts the buyer in a good position because each of the bidders doesn’t know what the others will bid, so each potential seller is motivated to put together the best offer they can. The buyer can then pick which one it likes best.

But instead of bidding blind, what if you met ahead of time with the other two bidding companies and talked about what you were going to bid? You could, in fact, decide among the three of you which one of you will win this bid, agreeing to allow the others to win bids with other buying companies. In doing this, you will save a lot of money and hassle.

The reason is that you don’t have to put forth your best offer—you just have to bid something that the buyer will take if it is the best of the three bids. You can arrange among the three bidders for the other two bidders to either not bid (which may arouse suspicion) or you could arrange for them to bid a much worse package, so your package looks the best. The three bidders can then rotate this arrangement for other requests for proposals. Or you offer each other subcontracts from the “winner.”

If you did this, you’d save a lot of money, in the short run.

Of course, in the medium and long run, you might learn more about criminal antitrust law and end up in jail. You could also find yourself on the wrong side of civil antitrust litigation.

This is what is called bid-rigging. It is one of the most severe antitrust violations—so much so that the courts have designated it a per se antitrust violation.

Bid rigging is also a criminal antitrust violation that can lead to jail time. And it often leads to civil antitrust litigation too. Many years ago, when I was still with DLA Piper, I spent a lot of time on a case that included bid-rigging allegations in the insurance and insurance brokerage industries called In re Insurance Brokerage Antitrust Litigation.

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Author:  Steven J. Cernak

Hart-Scott-Rodino or HSR, the U.S. premerger notification program, has undergone several major changes since the beginning of the pandemic. Some FTC Commissioners have suggested even more changes. HSR filers, both frequent and infrequent, need to understand these current developments.

As this blog has discussed frequently (see here, here, and here), the US was the pioneer among  global competition law regimes in requiring parties to most large mergers and similar transactions to obtain approval from the jurisdiction’s enforcer before closing. Under HSR’s latest thresholds, both buyers and sellers for most transactions whose value exceeds $92M must submit a form and certain documents relating to the parties and the transaction and then wait for 30 days. The FTC and DOJ use that time to decide whether to ask for more information or allow the transaction to close. While those basics have not changed, some of the details are new.

Until the pandemic hit, the HSR system essentially had no way for parties to electronically submit forms and documents; instead, parties or their lawyers printed out paper copies and shipped them in by local couriers or overnight delivery services. Once the pandemic hit and government staffers started working from home, the FTC Premerger Notification Office, which oversees HSR submissions, had to develop a new system.

The resulting system requires parties to email the PNO and request a link that can then be used to upload the form and required documentary attachments. As with any system in which many large documents must be transferred, the time to upload the materials can vary by the size of the documents and the strength of the filer’s connection. While parties save the time and expense of delivery services, they should not count on instant uploads. Also, the PNO updated its instructions on the system several times in 2020 so that even filers who successfully submitted materials several months ago should look for revisions as recently as December. For instance, the materials must be submitted in pdf format with searchable text. As a result of these changes, frequent filers have had to adjust processes used for years to comply with the new procedures.

Parties have figured out those new processes, as evidenced by the huge number of filings over the last several months. While the number of HSR filings was down considerable early in the pandemic, that number increased until November 2020 had more than twice the number of filings of the same month in the previous year. February and March of 2021 also had increases of more than 100% year-over-year, disproving the guess by some observers, this author included, that the November figure was a blip caused by the end of the year and presidential administration.

The agencies continue to process all the filings, though not quite with the usual speed. To help the situation, the FTC suspended the early termination program by which the agencies affirmatively clear the most routine transactions in less than 30 days and allowed them to close.  Now, all parties, even those to transactions that raise no antitrust issues, need to plan to wait the entire 30 days before closing.

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Authors: Luis Blanquez and Jon Cieslak

Deferred prosecution agreements (“DPAs”) in the antitrust world have been a hot topic on this side of the Atlantic during the past two years. DPAs seem to be slowly becoming an efficient instrument for the Department of Justice to tackle antitrust conspiracies, and we expect this trend to continue.

What is a DPA?

A DPA is a legal agreement between a prosecutor and a defendant where the former eventually drops any charges against the latter, if the terms of such agreement are met. In other words, a DPA is a contract to resolve a criminal enforcement action without the prosecution of charges.

If the defendant––either a company or an individual––complies with all the terms of the DPA during a period of time (usually two to three years), despite being initially charged, the prosecutor will dismiss the charges and the defendant will avoid a conviction. DPA terms commonly require a defendant to pay a fine, implement certain remedial measures to alleviate the wrongdoing, or take steps to ensure future compliance.

While DPAs are almost universally considered a positive outcome for the defendant, they do carry some risk. By agreeing to a DPA, a defendant admits to wrongdoing and waives any right to challenge a set of agreed facts that are sufficient to sustain a conviction. Accordingly, if a defendant fails to comply with the terms of a DPA, it will face prosecution and almost certain conviction.

The Role of DPAs in the DOJ Criminal and Antitrust Recent Guidelines

Until recently, if an antitrust defendant did not win the race for leniency, the DOJ Antitrust Division’s approach was to insist that the company plead guilty to a criminal charge with the opportunity to be an early-in cooperator, and potentially receive a substantial penalty reduction for timely, significant, and useful cooperation. This all-or-nothing philosophy highlighted the value of winning the race for leniency.

But all that changed in July 2019, when the Antitrust Division announced a new policy to incentivize antitrust compliance. These new guidelines were presented by AAG Makan Delrahim on July 11, 2019, at the Program on Corporate Compliance and Enforcement at the New York University School of Law: Wind of Change: A New Model for Incentivizing Antitrust Compliance Programs.

Delrahim explained that, unlike in the past, corporate antitrust compliance programs will now factor into prosecutors’ charging and sentencing decisions, allowing companies to qualify for DPAs or otherwise mitigate exposure, even when they are not the first to self-report criminal conduct.

In particular, Delrahim highlighted three important points.

  • First, that the adequacy and effectiveness of a compliance program is but one of the ten factors the Justice Manual directs prosecutors to consider when weighing charges against a corporation. Among the “Factors to Be Considered”, four in particular stand out as hallmarks of good corporate citizenship: (1) implement robust and effective compliance programs, and when wrongdoing occurs, they (2) promptly self-report, (3) cooperate in the Division’s investigation, and (4) take remedial action.
  • Second, that the DOJ’s new approach would allow prosecutors to proceed by way of a DPA when “the relevant Factors, including the adequacy and effectiveness of the corporation’s compliance program, weigh in favor of doing so.” DPAs, as the Justice Manual recognizes, “occupy an important middle ground between declining prosecution and obtaining the conviction of a corporation.”
  • Third, that the mere existence of a compliance program does not necessarily guarantee a DPA. Instead, “Department prosecutors are directed to conduct a fact-specific inquiry into “whether the program [at issue] is adequately designed for maximum effectiveness in preventing and detecting wrongdoing by employees. In making a charging recommendation, Antitrust Division prosecutors will evaluate the compliance program’s effectiveness or lack thereof, and holistically, consider it together with all the other relevant Factors.”

This marked a substantial policy shift for the Antitrust Division, which previously never considered DPAs as an option to resolve antitrust conspiracy cases. Under the DOJ’s existing leniency program, the antitrust Division was allowing full immunity exclusively to leniency applicants.

That’s not the case anymore––but make no mistake––only so long as the offending party has, as explained above, a truly robust and effective compliance program in place. And for that purpose, the recent Revised Guidance from the Criminal Division issued in June 2020 on the Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs is the last piece of this puzzle. The new Guidance provides additional information to assist prosecutors––both in antitrust and other investigations––in making informed decisions as to whether, and to what extent, a corporation’s compliance program was effective at the time of the offense. You can read more about it on our previous post:

The Department of Justice Policy and Guidance on Antitrust Compliance Programs and Antitrust Criminal Violations

A Detailed Look at the First Eight DPAs Under the New Policy Incentivizing Compliance

As a result of the new DOJ’s guidance on antitrust compliance programs and criminal investigations, we are starting to see an increased use of DPAs by the Antitrust Division. Let’s have a close look at the ones made public so far.

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Author: Jon Cieslak

Over a year after it was first passed by the Senate, the Criminal Antitrust Anti-Retaliation Act finally became law in December 2020. The new law protects employees who report criminal antitrust violations such as price fixing or bid rigging from retaliation.

The Act states that an employer may not “discharge, demote, suspend, threaten, harass, or in any other manner discriminate against” an employee, agent, contractor, or subcontractor who reports suspected criminal antitrust violations to an appropriate authority, which includes the federal government, the employee’s supervisor, or an individual working for the employer with appropriate investigative powers (such as corporate counsel or an antitrust monitor). The Act also protects employees who participate in or assist a federal investigation of suspected antitrust violations, whether or not they acted as a whistleblower in the first instance.

Global Antitrust

Author: Jarod Bona

Just because your company isn’t based in the United States doesn’t mean it can ignore US antitrust law. In this interconnected world, there is a good chance that if you produce something, the United States is a market that matters to your company.

For that reason, I offer five points below that attorneys and business leaders for non-U.S. companies should understand about US antitrust law.

But maybe you aren’t from a foreign company? Does that mean you can click away? No. Keep reading. Most of the insights below matter to anyone within the web of US antitrust law.

This original version of this article is cross-posted in both English and French at Thibault Schrepel’s outstanding competition blog Le Concurrentialiste

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Antitrust Superhero

Author: Jarod Bona

Some lawyers focus on litigation. Other attorneys spend their time on transactions or mergers & acquisitions. Many lawyers offer some sort of legal counseling. Another group—often in Washington, DC or Brussels—spend their time close to the government, usually either administrative agencies or the legislature. And perhaps the most interesting attorneys try to keep their clients out of jail.

But your friendly antitrust attorneys—the superheroes of lawyers—do all of this. That is part of what makes practicing antitrust so fun. We are here to solve competition problems; whether they arise from transactions, disputes, or the government, we are here to help. Or perhaps you just want some basic advice. We do that too—all the time. We can even help train your employees on antitrust law as part of compliance programs.

Perhaps you are a new attorney, or a law student, and you are considering what area to practice? Try antitrust and competition law. Not only is this arena challenging and in flux—which adds to the excitement—but you also don’t pigeonhole yourself into a particular type of practice. You get to do it all—your job is to understand the essence of markets and competition and to help clients solve competition problems. And in the world of big tech, antitrust is kind of a big deal.

For those of you that aren’t antitrust attorneys, I thought it might be useful if I explained what it is that we do.

Antitrust and Business Litigation

Although much of our litigation is, in fact, antitrust litigation, much of it is not. In the business v. business litigation especially, even in cases that involve an antitrust claim, there are typically several other types of claims that are not antitrust. As an example, we explain here how we see a lot of Lanham Act False Advertising claims in our antitrust and competition practice.

Businesses compete in the marketplace, but they also compete in the courtroom, for better or worse. And when they do, their big weapon is often a federal antitrust claim (with accompanying treble damages and attorneys’ fees), but they may also be armed with other claims, including trade secret statutes, Lanham Act (both false advertising and trademark), intellectual propertytortuous interference (particularly popular in business disputes), unfair competition, unfair and deceptive trade practices, and others.

In many instances, in fact, we will receive a call from a client that thinks they may have an antitrust claim. Perhaps they read this blog post. Sometimes they do, indeed, have a potential antitrust claim. But in other instances, an antitrust claim probably won’t work, but another claim might fit, perhaps a Lanham Act claim for false advertising, or tortuous interference with contract, or some sort of state unfair trade practice claim.

Antitrust lawyers study markets and competition and are the warriors of courtroom competition between competitors. If you have a legal dispute with a competitor, you should call your friendly antitrust attorney.

Antitrust litigation itself is great fun. The cases are usually significant, document heavy, with difficult legal questions and an emphasis on economic testimony. Some of them even involve class actions or multi-district litigation.

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antitrust blizzard
Author: Jarod Bona

I am from Minnesota, so I am quite familiar with blizzards. They may be interesting to watch through a window from a room warmed by a fireplace, but you don’t want to get caught in one. The same is true for an antitrust blizzard: They are interesting to watch, but they can destroy you. Like driving a car through a winter blizzard, you have to pay close attention, make sure you do the right thing, and in the end, you could crash.

In case you get hit by one, you should be prepared: Create and follow an antitrust compliance policy. You may even get bonus points from the Department of Justice if you have (and follow) the right antitrust policy.

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