Contracting authorities should not be scared to exclude misbehaving tenderers, for the CJEU has their back (C-440/13)

In its Judgment in Croce Amica One Italia, C-440/13, EU:C:2014:2435, the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) has decided a complex situation concerning the exclusion of a tenderer based on an on-going criminal investigation derived from an allegation of fraud and misrepresentation in the submission of the documentation for that specific tender (ie an, 'intra-tender' ground for exclusion). The reasoning of the CJEU is complex because it conflates the application of exclusion grounds and the withdrawal of an invitation to tender under Directive 2004/18 and its interpreting case law--and, consequently, deserves some close consideration.

In the case at hand, the contracting authority announced an open procedure for certain specialist transportation services and received four offers. Three of the four offers where rejected on technical grounds. The contract was provisionally awarded to the fourth tenderer (Croce Amica One), but an investigation was initiated due to the evaluation scores being seemingly too high (ie carrying more than 80% of the maximum points in both the technical and the economic evaluation, which triggers specific scrutiny under the applicable Italian rules). As a result of the inquiry, the evaluation team determined that the tender was anomalous. Simultaneously, a preliminary criminal law investigation for fraud and intentional false statements was launched concerning, among others, the legal representative of Croce Amica One. It is not relevant for the assessment (as it comes ex post facto), but the investigation actually found that there had been fraud.

In view of all this, the contracting authority decided to cancel the tender. Its reasoning was as follows: given the circumstances described, apart from the anomalous nature of the tender, the [contracting authority] [could] not in any event, for evident reasons of expediency and reasons connected with the principle of sound administration, proceed to award the services contract to the tenderer Croce Amica One … nor, given the vital nature of the services in question, [could] it postpone the award of the contract pending the outcome of the criminal proceedings or even the conclusion of the investigations currently under way’ (para 17, emphasis added).

One of the difficulties in the case concerned the 'timing' of the application of the exclusion ground by the contracting authority. Implicitly, the allegation was that the contracting authority could only have applied the exclusion ground prior to deciding on the (provisional) award of the contract--following the logical sequence of exclusion, selection, award that Directive 2004/18 seemed to impose. By deviating from that apparently mandatory sequence or, in other words, by applying the exclusion ground at an inappropriate moment (ie too late in terms of the procurement procedure, and too early in terms of the parallel criminal investigation, which was on-going), the contracting authority would have breached the EU rules. Those rules would have been furthermore breached due to the unjustified cancellation of the tender--which, however, derives from the fact of excluding the only tenderer left and, consequently, it is hard to see why this second dimension would be (independently) relevant.

Unfortunately, and due to some procedural restrictions derived from the mechanics of the preliminary reference mechanism (para 28), the CJEU does not focus on the timing for the application of the exclusion ground (it simply mentions that the circumstances of the case are clearly covered under art 45(2) dir 2004/18, para 28) and, instead, looks at whether the cancellation of the tender (or the implicit withdrawal of the invitation to tender) is justified (paras 29-37). Hence, the reasoning of the CJEU in Croce Amica One does not seem very helpful in establishing whether, under the rules in dir 2004/18, exclusion grounds can be applied by contracting authorities after completing the initial selection screening , or whether they can base the exclusion on (suspected) breaches that occur during the tender procedure.

Thus, the Croce Amica One Judgment may at first sight seem to come too late or be of limited temporary relevance because this situation is now expressly regulated in art 57(5) of Directive 2014/24, which allows contracting authorities to apply the revised exclusion grounds 'at any time during the procedure' and 'in view of acts committed or omitted either before or during the procedure'. However, even if based on the (not necessarily) inter-linked point of the cancellation of the tender, the reasoning of the CJEU in Croce Amica One should remain valid after the entry into force of dir 2014/24 as a clear back-up to contracting authorities that decide to exercise their discretion and apply art 57(5) in view of exclusion grounds based on concurrent tendering (mis)behaviour. 

Indeed, it is worth stressing that the CJEU has clarified that:
EU law does not preclude Member States from providing in their legislation for the possibility of adopting a decision to withdraw an invitation to tender. The grounds for such a decision may thus be based on reasons which reflect, inter alia, the assessment as to whether it is expedient, from the point of view of the public interest, to carry an award procedure to its conclusion, having regard, among other things, to any change that may arise in the economic context or factual circumstances, or indeed the needs of the contracting authority concerned (C-440/13, para 35, emphasis added).
In my view, this reinforces the powers that art 57(5) dir 2014/24 gives to contracting authorities to 'self-protect' from entering into contracts with (potentially) unreliable suppliers. This will have to be coupled with certain procedural guarantees (as the CJEU stresses in paras 38-46), but the general principle is, in my view, that contracting authorities need to feel empowered to react to their informed and demonstrable suspicions by excluding tenderers affected by exclusion grounds.

However, there is also a final caveat in the Croce Amica One line of reasoning that looks very dangerous to me because of its potentially misleading content. Continuing with the exploration of the reasons that can justify the cancellation of a tender, the CJEU indicates that: The grounds for such a decision may also relate to there being an insufficient degree of competition, due to the fact that, at the conclusion of the award procedure in question, only one tenderer was qualified to perform the contract (C-440/13, para 35, emphasis added). 

I find this last bit of the reasoning potentially dangerous for two reasons. Firstly, because economics tells us that this is not a situation that per se can be interpreted as evidencing insufficient competition [see JM Keisler & WA Buehring, ‘How Many Vendors Does It Take To Screw Down A Price? A Primer on Competition’ (2005) 5 Journal of Public Procurement 291]. And, secondly, because it is prone to abuse in cases where the contracting authority is left with only one tenderer that it simply dislikes or does not want to engage with for reasons not covered by exclusion grounds or qualitative selection criteria. In such case, the random result that only one tenderer (of many participating) can actually perform the contract would be the (unexpected) perfect excuse to discriminate against it by cancelling the tender.

Hence, I would urge for a very restrictive interpretation of this last part of para 35 of the Croce Amica One Judgment, particularly in view of a proper interpretation of the principle of competition embedded in art 18(1) dir 2014/24--ie because the blank rejection of the only tender that meets all the requirements of the contracting authority would, if not otherwise justified, be an artificial restriction of the (outcome of) the competition actually materialised in the procedure.