Litigation in Spanish railroad electrification cartel highlights further inadequacies of regulation of bid rigger exclusion

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In a new episode of the Spanish sainete of the railroad electrification cartel (see here for an overview), it has now emerged that one of the companies affected by the exclusion ground (prohibición de contratar) declared in the resolution of the Spanish National Commission on Markets and Competition (CNMC) of 14 March 2019 subsequently secured interim measures suspending its effectiveness on 19 July 2019.

The freezing order prevents (Spanish) contracting authorities from relying on the exclusion ground and thus shortens the maximum period of (future) exclusion of the colluding companies, unless the CJEU revises its case law on the time-limit calculation for such grounds established in Vossloh-Laeis (24 October 2018, C-124/17, EU:C:2018:855). The decision also highlights issues concerning the cross-border effects of litigation on exclusion grounds. In this follow-up post, I discuss these two issues.

The interim measures decision

Quick recap: it should be stressed that the Spanish transposition of Article 57(4)(d) has resulted in a system whereby the exclusion of economic operators on the basis of previous infringements of competition law is mandatory under Article 71 of Law 9/2017 on Public Sector Procurement (LCSP). However, the scope and duration of such exclusion generates some difficulties, in particular when they are not established in the original decision declaring the infraction and imposing the measure—which is precisely the case of the railroad electrification cartel. In such cases, a further administrative procedure needs to be completed and the scope and duration of the mandatory exclusion (prohibición de contratar) are to be established by decision of the competent Minister.

The effectiveness of the mandatory exclusion ground in the period running from the initial infringement decision and the further Ministerial decision is contested. Two opposing schools of thought exist. One that gives automatic effect to the exclusion ground despite the future specification of its scope and duration, and the opposing view that considers that the measure is incomplete and cannot generate (negative) effects against the sanctioned undertaking until the Ministerial decision is adopted.

The CNMC expressed the first view in its railroad electrification decision, when it stated that ‘regardless of the time limits within which the duration and scope [of the prohibition] must be set [by the Minister of Finance] ... it is possible to identify an automatism in the prohibition of contracting derived from competition law infringements, which derives ope legis or as a mere consequence of the adoption of a decision that declares said infraction, as established in the mentioned Article 71.1.b) of [Law 9/2017]‘ (page 319, own translation full decision available in Spanish).

The Spanish High Court (Audiencia Nacional), in a Judgment of 19 July 2019 (ES:AN:2019:1673A, hat tip to Alfonso Rincón García-Loygorri for posting it on LinkedIn) adopted the same view and recognised that the measure was bound to immediately restrict the affected undertakings’ ability to participate in public tenders. Considering that it is likely that the final decision on the main appeal of the cartel decision arrives after the expiry of the three year maximum duration foreseen for the exclusion ground and that (should the appellant prevail) the effects of such exclusion would be very difficult, if not impossible to correct at that stage, the High Court decided to suspend the effectiveness of the mandatory exclusion ground.

Implications in terms of maximum duration of the exclusion

Quick recap: the CJEU has established that ‘where an economic operator has been engaged in conduct falling within the ground for exclusion referred to in Article 57(4)(d) of that directive, which has been penalised by a competent authority, the maximum period of exclusion is calculated from the date of the decision of that authority‘ (Vossloh Laeis, above, para 42).

I criticised the CNMC for creating legal uncertainty by not establishing the scope and duration of the exclusion ground in its initial decision. I argued that the CNMC knew or should have known that, as a matter of directly applicable EU law, de facto the maximum exclusion period can run for three years, up to 14 March 2022. Therefore, by referring the file to the Minister and creating legal uncertainty as to the interim effects of the prohibition to contract with a yet to be specified scope and duration, the CNMC actually bought the competition infringers time and created a situation where any finally imposed prohibition to contract is likely to last for much less than the maximum three years.

The High Court’s Judgment raises the same criticisms. While the High Court explicitly took into account the fact that the undertakings could find themselves in a position of not being easily compensated for the undue exclusion from public tenders in case of prevailing in their appeal of the CNMC decision, the High Court ignored that its freezing order will create the reverse effect in case the appeal is dismissed. By preventing (Spanish) contracting authorities from excluding the competition infringers from tenders for an indefinite period starting on 19 July 2019, the High Court has created the risk that the undertakings are never excluded from public tenders because such exclusion is time barred by the time the CNMC decision becomes final—which does not solely depend on the outcome of the High Court’s proceedings, but is subject to a potential further appeal to the Supreme Court.

This highlights once again the inadequacy—or, at least, partiality—of the CJEU Vossloh criterion that the maximum period of exclusion starts running at the time of adoption of the initial infringement decision. It seems clear that, where that decision is contested and, in particular, where interim measures are obtained to freeze its effects—the maximum period of exclusion needs to be calculated taking that into account. Otherwise, the simple fact of litigating buys competition infringers immunity from the debarment system foreseen in Directive 2014/24/EU and thus excludes its effet utile. That cannot be right.

Territoriality of effects

The new episode of the Spanish sainete also raises questions concerning the cross-border effects of the CNMC decision. While Spanish contracting authorities are effectively enjoined from giving effect to the mandatory exclusion ground, the situation is by no means necessarily the same in other EU/EEA jurisdictions. Non-Spanish contracting authorities could (justifiably) be tempted to apply domestic mandatory or discretionary exclusion grounds based on the fact that the relevant undertakings were sanctioned for bid rigging by the CNMC. This could be the case whether they are aware or not of the High Court Judgment, in particular where they have discretion in this matter.

Should any such decision be challenged, the issue should make its way to the CJEU, which would have a hard time finding ways of squaring this practical difficulty with the differentiated treatment that Art 57 of Directive gives to grounds based on a ‘conviction by final judgment‘ (Art 57(1)) and those based on decisions and judgments not subjected to that finality requirement (notably, Art 57(4)), as well as with the self-imposed constraint of the way the maximum time-limit is calculated as per Vossloh.

Once again, we are yet to see the final act of this sainete…

The Emergence of Trans-EU Collaborative Procurement: A 'Living Lab' for European Public Law

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I have uploaded a new working paper on SSRN: ‘The Emergence of Trans-EU Collaborative Procurement: A “Living Lab” for European Public Law’ (March 14, 2019) https://ssrn.com/abstract=3392228. Its abstract is as follows:

Trans-EU collaborative procurement is a fertile ‘living lab’ for the observation, theorisation and critical assessment of developments in European public law. This paper maps the emergence of this novel type of cross-border administrative collaboration and scrutinises the new rules of Directive 2014/24/EU, which evidence the tension between promoting economic co-operation across borders within the internal market and the concern to respect the Member States’ administrative autonomy. The paper critically assesses the EU legislative competence in this area, extracts consequences for balancing trans-EU collaboration with ‘mandatory public law requirements’ at Member State level and proposes minimum functional guarantees to be expected in the implementation of trans-EU collaborative procurement.

Bid rigging conspiracy in railroad electrification works: A very Spanish 'sainete'

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A case of bid rigging in works contracts for high-speed and conventional railroad electrification in Spain evidences a number of shortcomings in the domestic transposition of the 2014 rules on discretionary exclusion of competition law offenders from public procurement tenders, as well as some dysfunctionalities of their interpretation by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in its Judgment of 24 October 2018 in Vossloh Laeis, C-124/17, EU:C:2018:855. The unilateral price adjustment of live contracts sought by the main victim of the cartel, the Spanish rail network administrator ADIF comes to raise very significant issues on the limits to the ‘self-protection’ (or private justice) for contracting authorities that are victims of bid rigging. In this post, I point to the main issues that puzzle me in this very Spanish sainete. I am sure there will be plenty debate in Spanish legal circles after the holidays…

Legal background: EU level: Art 57(4)(c) and (d) of Directive 2014/24/EU

As is well known, Article 57(4) of Directive 2014/24/EU establishes discretionary grounds for the exclusion of economic operators from public procurement tenders. In relation to economic operators that have breached competition law, there are two relevant grounds.

First, Art 57(4)(c) foresees the possibility of exclusion ‘where the contracting authority can demonstrate by appropriate means that the economic operator is guilty of grave professional misconduct, which renders its integrity questionable‘. This was interpreted by the CJEU as covering entities that had been sanctioned for breaches of competition law in relation to the earlier rules of Directive 2004/18/EC (Art 45(2)(d)) as an instance of their being ‘guilty of grave professional misconduct proven by any means which the contracting authorities can demonstrate’. The CJEU established in unambiguous terms that ‘the commission of an infringement of the competition rules, in particular where that infringement was penalised by a fine, constitutes a cause for exclusion under Article 45(2)(d) of Directive 2004/18’ in its Judgment of 18 December 2014 in Generali-Providencia Biztosító, C-470/13, EU:C:2014:2469 (para 35).

Second, Art 57(4)(d) allows for the exclusion ‘where the contracting authority has sufficiently plausible indications to conclude that the economic operator has entered into agreements with other economic operators aimed at distorting competition‘. The relationship between both exclusion grounds relating to competition law infringements is somewhat debated. I have argued elsewhere that Art 57(4)(c) should still be used as the legal basis for the exclusion of economic operators that have already been sanctioned for previous bid rigging offences, whereas Art 57(4)(d) creates an additional ground for exclusion based on indicia of contemporary collusion. For details, see A Sanchez-Graells, Public Procurement and the EU Competition Rules (2nd ed, Hart, 2015) 296-301.

Of course, discretionary exclusion on grounds of infringements of competition law can be modulated by the rules on self-cleaning in Art 57(6) Directive 2014/24/EU. It is also important to add that these discretionary exclusion grounds can be applied for a period not exceeding three years from the date of the relevant event, as per Art 57(7) Directive 2014/24/EU. The CJEU has interpreted the ‘relevant event’ in this context, and clarified that ‘where an economic operator has been engaged in conduct falling within the ground for exclusion referred to in Article 57(4)(d) of that directive, which has been penalised by a competent authority, the maximum period of exclusion is calculated from the date of the decision of that authority‘ (Vossloh Laeis, above, para 42)

Legal background: domestic level: the transposition by Law 9/2017

The transposition into Spanish law of these provisions has introduced some important modifications.

First, these exclusion grounds have been made mandatory under Article 71 of Law 9/2017 on Public Sector Procurement, as discussed by P Valcarcel, ‘Transposition of Directive 2014/24/EU in Spain: between EU demands and national peculiarities‘ in S Treumer & M Comba (eds), Modernising Public Procurement: The Member States Approach, vol. 8 European Procurement Law Series (Edward Elgar, 2018) 236-237. For a broader description of the Spanish system of mandatory exclusion (ie through ‘prohibiciones de contratar,’ or prohibitions on contracting), see A Sanchez-Graells, 'Qualification, Selection and Exclusion of Economic Operators under Spanish Public Procurement Law' in M Burgi, S Treumer & M Trybus (eds), Qualification, Selection and Exclusion in EU Procurement, vol. 7 European Procurement Law Series (Copenhagen, DJØF, 2016) 159-188.

Second, the grounds in Art 57(4)(c) and (d) of Directive 2014/24/EU have been transposed in a seemingly defective manner. Art 57(4)(d) has been omitted and Art 57(4)(d) is reflected in Art 71(1)(b) of Law 9/2017, according to which there is a prohibition to enter into a contract with an ‘economic operator … guilty of grave professional misconduct, which renders its integrity questionable, in matters such as market discipline, distortion of competition … in accordance with current regulations’ (own translation from Spanish).

Thirdly, Art 72(2) of Law 9/2017 foresees two ways in which the mandatory exclusion ground based on a prior firm sanction for competition infringements can operate. On the one hand, the prohibition to enter into a contract with competition law infringers ‘will be directly appreciated by the contracting bodies when the judgment or administrative resolution [imposing the sanction] had expressly established its scope and duration, and will be in force during the term indicated therein’ (own translation from Spanish). On the other hand—and logically, as a subsidiary rule—it is also foreseen that ‘In the event that the judgment or administrative resolution does not contain a ruling on the scope or duration of the prohibition to contract … the scope and duration of the prohibition shall be determined by means of a procedure instructed for this purpose, in accordance with the provisions of this article’ (own translation from Spanish). Such procedure is rather convoluted and involves a decision of the Minister of Finance on the advice of the State Consultative Board on Public Procurement.

Fourthly, and in an extreme pro-leniency fashion, Art 72(5)II of Law 9/2017 has established that the prohibition to enter into contracts will not apply to economic operators that have self-cleaned and, in particular, to those that have obtained leniency in the context of competition enforcement procedures. That is, there is an exemption from the otherwise applicable exclusion ground based on infringements of competition law for undertakings that demonstrate the ‘adoption of appropriate technical, organisational and personnel measures to avoid the commission of future administrative infractions, which include participating in the clemency program in the field of competition law‘ (own translation from Spanish).

It is also odd that the provision does not require economic operators to have ‘clarified the facts and circumstances in a comprehensive manner by actively collaborating with the investigating authorities‘, which was the main issue at stake in the Vossloh Laeis litigation.

A controversial decision by the Spanish National Commission on Markets and Competition (CNMC)

On 14 March 2019, the CNMC adopted a decision against 15 construction companies finding them responsible for a long-lasting bid rigging scheme to manipulate the tenders for public contracts works relating to different aspects of high-speed and conventional railroad electrification (full decision available in Spanish). One of the novel aspects of the decision is that the CNMC explicitly activated the prohibition to enter into contracts against the competition infringers. However, the CNMC did so in very peculiar manner.

The oddity of the decision mainly lies on the fact that CNMC decided not to establish the scope and duration of the prohibition to contract, but simply to refer the case to the State Consultative Board on Public Procurement (see pages 317-320). This was the object of criticism in a dissenting vote by Councillor María Pilar Canedo, who stressed that the CNMC should have set the scope and duration of the prohibition to contract in its decision (pages 366-370). The position of the CNMC is certainly difficult to understand.

On the one hand, the CNMC stressed that ‘regardless of the time limits within which the duration and scope [of the prohibition] must be set [by the Minister of Finance] ... it is possible to identify an automatism in the prohibition of contracting derived from competition law infringements, which derives ope legis or as a mere consequence of the adoption of a decision that declares said infraction, as established in the mentioned Article 71.1.b) of [Law 9/2017]‘ (page 319). On the other hand, however, the CNMC decided to (potentially) kick the effectiveness of such prohibition into the long grass by not establishing its scope and duration in its decision—and explicitly saying so (unnecessarily…). No wonder, contracting authorities will have some difficulty applying the automaticity of a prohibition which time and scope are yet to be determined.

Moreover, the CNMC was aware of the CJEU decision in Vossloh Laeis (above), to which it referred to in its own decision (in a strange manner, though). In that regard, the CNMC knew or should have known that, as a matter of directly applicable EU law, de facto the maximum exclusion period can run for three years, up to 14 March 2022. Therefore, by referring the file to the Minister of Finance via the State Consultative Board on Public Procurement and creating legal uncertainty as to the interim effects of a seemingly prohibition to contract with a yet to be specified scope and duration, the CNMC actually bought the competition infringers time and created a situation where any fianlly imposed prohibition to contract is likely to last for much less than the maximum three years.

The (for now) final twist: ADIF takes justice in its own hands

As if this was not enough, according to the Spanish press (see the main story in El Pais), the main victim of the cartel—the Spanish rail network administrator, ADIF—has now decided to take justice in its own hands.

According to the report, ADIF has written to the relevant companies announcing claims for damages—which is the ordinary reaction that could be expected. However, it has also taken the decision of demanding an anticipation of the compensation from those companies with which it has ‘live’ contracts, to which it has demanded a 10% price reduction. What is more, ADIF has decided to withhold 10% of the contractual price and to deposit in an escrow account before a notary, as a sort of sui generis self-created interim measure to ensure some compensation for the damages suffered from the cartel. The legal issues that this unilateral act generates are too many to list here. And these will surely be the object of future litigation.

What I find particularly difficult to understand is that, in contrast with this decisively aggressive approach to withholding payment, ADIF has awarded contracts to some of the competition infringers after the publication of the CNMC decision. And not a small number of contracts or for little amounts. In fact, ADIF has awarded over 280 contracts for a total value close to €300 million.

Thus, ADIF has largely carried out its business as usual in the award of public works contracts, both ignoring the rather straightforward argument of automaticity of the prohibition to contract hinted at by the CNMC— though based on a convoluted and rather strained interpretation of domestic law (Art 72(2) Law 9/2017)—and, more importantly, the discretionary ground for exclusion in Art 57(4)(d) of Directive 2014/24/EU.

There will certainly be some more scenes in this sainete…


Paper on Public Procurement & "Core" Human Rights

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I have uploaded a new paper on SSRN, which is a draft chapter for a forthcoming book: O Martin-Ortega & C M O’Brien (eds), Public Procurement and Human Rights: Risks, Dilemmas and Opportunities for the State as a Buyer (Edward Elgar). In my chapter 'Public Procurement and "Core" Human Rights: A Sketch of the EU Legal Framework', I sketch the main mechanisms for the implementation of a "core" human rights-orientated public procurement policy foreseen in the 2014 EU Public Procurement Package.

In particular, I discuss the main constraints for the inclusion of human rights-related considerations in the procurement process through the following instruments: exclusion grounds; use of labels; award criteria; and contract performance requirements. I conclude by offering a sceptical view of the effectiveness of any of these mechanisms due to policy fuzziness and significant resource constraints, and query their desirability due to the implicit trade-offs they impose on the general effectiveness of the procurement function.

This is still very much work-in-progress, so any comments or feedback would be most welcome: a.sanchez-graells@bristol.ac.uk. The full paper is available on SSRN as: A Sanchez-Graells, 'Public Procurement and "Core" Human Rights: A Sketch of the EU Legal Framework' (January 16, 2018), to be published in O Martin-Ortega & C M O’Brien (eds), Public Procurement and Human Rights: Risks, Dilemmas and Opportunities for the State as a Buyer (Edward Elgar, forthcoming): https://ssrn.com/abstract=3103194.

In-depth discussions on contract modifications at the Danish Association for Public Procurement

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I had the honour of being invited to speak at the workshop on "Contract Changes in a European Perspective" organised by the Danish Association for Public Procurement (Dansk Forening for Udbudsret), where I shared thoughts with academic colleagues that have been researching on the topic for a long time--such as Prof Steen Treumer, Dr Piotr Bogdanowicz and Dr Carina Risvig Hamer--as well as with practitioners, such as Erik Kjær-Hansen, facing the increasingly complex task of advising contracting authorities and economic operators.

In my presentation, I covered general issues concerning the interaction between contract modifications and competition for public contracts (slides below), Piotr concentrated on specific interpretive difficulties raised by Article 72 of Directive 2014/24/EU, and the general discussion raised interesting topics based on Danish practice--which is rather sophisticated, and also in a state of shock after the CJEU's Finn Frogne decision of last year (see here).

In my view, there are significant challenges derived from the extension of EU rules to the execution phase of public contracts and the pro-competitive logic that generally inspires the rules in Article 72 of Directive 2014/24/EU, as well as the previous case law of the CJEU, is limited and bound to continue hitting the wall of unnecessary inflexibility of procurement procedures unless some more commercially-oriented sophistication is introduced in future case law (which should limit, if not reverse, Finn Frogne).

In the meantime, there is notable pressure on lawyers involved in the drafting of contract modification clauses, which are after an impossible mix of flexibility and predictability. Definitely an area where further discussions are needed. If you want to get involved in the conversation, please feel free to email me at a.sanchez-graells@bristol.ac.uk (or comment below).

Transparency in Procurement by the EU Institutions

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The next collaboration of the European Procument Law Group (EPLG) will be on 'Transparency in public procurement'. Thanks to Dr Kirsi-Maria Halonen, we will meet in Helsinki on 4-5 September 2017 to discuss comparative reports on 11 jurisdictions, including 10 EU Member States and the rules applicable to the procurement of the EU Institutions. I was tasked with the last topic, and my draft report on 'Transparency in Procurement by the EU Institutions' is here: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3020168. Comments most welcome: a.sanchez-graells@bristol.ac.uk.