ECJ confirms discretion to exclude tenderers for not updating self-certifications and points towards potential general obligation of sincere cooperation (C-178/16)

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In its Judgment of 20 December 2017 in Impresa di Costruzioni Ing. E. Mantovani and RTI Mantovani e Guerrato, C-178/16, EU:C:2017:1000 (Mantovani e Guerrato), the Court of Justice (ECJ) declared the compatibility with the 2004 EU public procurement rules of a contracting authority's decision to exclude an economic operator that, having self-certified as not being affected by exclusion grounds, subsequently failed to update the contracting authority when one of its former directors' criminal conviction for invoice fraud became final. Remarkably, the exclusion was upheld despite the fact that the 'conviction had become final following [the economic operator's] own declarations [and despite the fact ...] that, in order to fully and effectively dissociate the company from [its director]’s actions, the latter was immediately removed from his management role ..., the management bodies of the company had been reorganised, [his] shares had been bought back and an action for damages had been brought against him' (para 11). Therefore, the exclusion was upheld despite an attempt at self-cleaning. 

In declaring the compatibility with EU procurement law of this strict approach in the exercise of discretionary exclusion powers, the ECJ largely followed the Opinion of AG Campos Sánchez-Bordona (discussed here, where more background on the case is provided) and, in my view, confirmed a welcome functional approach to the exercise of discretion to exclude economic operators on the grounds of evidence that the economic operator is guilty of grave professional misconduct, which renders its integrity questionable [Art 45(2)(d) Dir 2004/18 and now Art 57(4)(c) Dir 2014/24]. In my view, there are some relevant passages in the Mantovani e Guerrato Judgment that will be of importance in the assessment of self-cleaning claims under the 2014 rules, given the recognition of the possibility for Member States to create an overarching obligation of sincere cooperation with the contracting authority befalling upon economic operators under the 2004 rules--which may well carry over to the new provisions at EU level. The relevance of such recognition of a general obligation stems from its crucial role in the original exclusion decision, which was 'in essence, [based on the fact] that although, in the absence of a final judgment, Mantovani’s statement could not be classified as a "misrepresentation", the lack of timely notification of criminal proceedings concerning one of the [relevant] persons ... may constitute an infringement of the obligation of sincere cooperation with the contracting authority, and accordingly impede the full and effective dissociation from the person concerned' (para 12).

In my view, it is important to stress that the ECJ reaches its position after reiterating its general case law position that

... Article 45(2) of Directive 2004/18 does not provide for uniform application at EU level of the grounds of exclusion it mentions, since the Member States may choose not to apply those grounds of exclusion, or to incorporate them into national law with varying degrees of rigour according to legal, economic or social considerations prevailing at national level. In that context, Member States have the power to make the criteria laid down in Article 45(2) less onerous or more flexible ... Member States therefore enjoy some discretion in determining the requirements governing the application of the optional grounds for exclusion laid down in Article 45(2) of Directive 2004/18 (paras 31-32, references omitted).

And it is also important to stress that the ECJ finds the legal basis for the obligation of sincere cooperation not on the 2004 EU procurement rules, but on the domestic law of the Member State concerned (Italy):

... the Member State is entitled to ease the requirements governing the application of the optional grounds for exclusion and, thus, to waive the application of a ground for exclusion in the event of a dissociation between the tenderer and the conduct constituting an offence. In the present case, it is also entitled to determine the requirements governing that dissociation and to require, as Italian law does, that the tenderer inform the contracting authority of a conviction of its director, even if the conviction is not yet final.

The tendering company, which must meet those requirements, may submit all the evidence which, in its view, is evidence of such a dissociation.

If that dissociation cannot be proved to the satisfaction of the contracting authority, the necessary consequence is the application of the ground for exclusion.

... in a situation where the judgment relating to an offence concerning the professional conduct of the director of a tendering company is not yet final, Article 45(2)(d) of Directive 2004/18 may apply. That provision makes it possible to exclude a tendering company which has been found guilty of grave professional misconduct, established by any means which the contracting authorities can provide proof of (paras 41-44).

Even if the ECJ seems to incur in some imprecision in interpreting Italian law (which, as far as I can see, did not require the tenderer to inform the contracting authority of the non-final conviction of its former director, but rather to update or substitute the relevant self-certification once that conviction becomes final), it seems clear that it foresees the possibility for Member States to create an overarching obligation of sincere cooperation as part of the relevant self-cleaning requirements. Given that self-cleaning was not regulated by Dir 2004/18, this is the only legal basis that could have been used in the case. However, given the inclusion of explicit rules in Dir 2014/24, an argument can be made that the ratio of the Mantovani e Guerrato Judgment will carry over to the new EU self-cleaning regime.

Indeed, when the functional principle underlying the Mantovani e Guerrato Judgment is put in connection with the new rules in Article 57(6) of Dir 2014/24, the legal basis of such an overarching obligation may now be seen as having potentially shifted to the EU level. Indeed, it is important to stress that, as minimum requirements for the recognition of self-cleaning capable of excluding the application of exclusion grounds (both mandatory and discretionary), the second paragraph of Art 57(6) Dir 2014/24 requires that 'the economic operator shall prove that it has paid or undertaken to pay compensation in respect of any damage caused by the criminal offence or misconduct, clarified the facts and circumstances in a comprehensive manner by actively collaborating with the investigating authorities and taken concrete technical, organisational and personnel measures that are appropriate to prevent further criminal offences or misconduct' (emphasis added).

This comes to establish an 'EU obligation of sincere cooperation' that, even if it seems oriented towards the 'investigating authorities' (which does not seem to automatically cover the contracting authority itself), can easily be extended in the same functional terms required by Italian law on the basis of the logic in the Mantovani e Guerrato Judgment. Therefore, in my view, when assessing self-cleaning claims--and as a result of a joint interpretation of Art 57(4)(c) and Art 57(6)II Dir 2014/24 from the functional perspective of the Mantovani e Guerrato Judgment--contracting authorities will be on safe grounds if they decide to reject self-cleaning claims on the basis of a lack of update of on-going criminal and administrative investigations that are susceptible of nullifying the effectiveness of self-certifications submitted by the economic operators concerned.

 

 

 

Interesting AG Opinion on treatment of on-going criminal cases & self-cleaning under 2004 rules (C-178/16)

In his Opinion of 21 June 2017 in Impresa di Costruzioni Ing. E. Mantovani and Guerrato, C-178/16, EU:C:2017:487 (not available in English), Advocate General Campos Sanchez-Bordona analysed an Italian case concerning the interaction between mandatory and discretionary exclusion grounds related to an undertakings' director's criminal record, as well as the self-cleaning measures adopted by the undertaking as it aimed to carry on participating in tenders for public contracts. The case requires the interpretation of the 2004 EU public procurement rules, but its rationale will be relevant in the future interpretation of Art 57 of Directive 2014/24.

In the case at hand, a former director (Mr B) of a tenderer (Mantovani) was under criminal investigation for having run a scheme of fraudulent invoices, and it was publicly known (vox populi) that he had entered into a plea bargain deal. When Mantovani submitted a tender for the construction of a new prison in Bolzano (the irony is inescapable...), and as part of the documentation aimed at demonstrating its good personal and professional standing, it submitted a self-certification indicating that Mr B had ceased his position as president of the board of directors 4 months prior to the start of the tender procedure and that, to the best of Mantovani's knowledge, no conviction by final judgment or plea bargain deal had been had been adopted.

Relying on the public information of which it was aware, the contracting authority requested a copy of Mr B's criminal record. It revealed that a sentence based on the plea bargain deal had become final after the submission of the self-certification by Mantovani (the sentence being adopted only the day after the submission of the first self-certification by Mantovani). The contracting authority decided to exclude Mantovani, which challenged this decision on the basis that: (a) the conviction had been published and become final after the submission of the self-certification, and (b) that it had taken remedial action to severe all ties with Mr B (including cessation of his directorship, restructuring of the board of directors, repurchase of Mr B's shares in Mantovani, and suing Mr B for director's liability).

Interestingly, the contracting authority asked for consultation to the Italian Anti-Corruption Agency (ANAC), which advised that, even if it could be found that Mantovani did not submit a false self-declaration (which onus probandi fell on the contracting authority), and in particular due to the (technical) fact that the conviction was not final at the time of the self-declaration, the contracting authority has a duty to assess the effectiveness of the self-cleaning measures and it is conceivable that Mantovani's integrity is compromised due to the fact that it had not taken positive steps to make the conviction know to the contracting authority once it became official and final. In ANAC's view, and according to Italian case law, failure to actively keep the contracting authority informed of developments in a criminal investigation (where there is an eventual conviction) reveals the absence of disengagement with the former director, and is thus a violation of the duty of loyal cooperation that can justify its exclusion from the procurement procedure.

The contracting authority decided to keep Mantovani's exclusion, and this was challenged. The assessment of the case is complicated by the peculiarities of the Italian rules (which triggered significant debate between the interveners before the ECJ, and which AG Campos rightly  considers the Court incompetent to rule on, see paras 37-38), as well as by the fact that the new rules on self-cleaning are not applicable ratione temporis, which creates some vacuum in the framework for the assessment of the contracting authority's exercise of discretion in this case. However, AG Campos' assessment of the case offers some interesting interpretive pointers. In my view, these are the relevant points of the Opinion:

  • The key issue concerns the contracting authority's decision to exclude Mantovani not directly on the basis of the criminal conviction of Mr B, but rather on Mantovani's own failure to keep the contracting authority informed once that conviction was official. This thus requires an assessment of compatibility with the ground of exclusion based on the existence of evidence that the economic operator is guilty of grave professional misconduct, which renders its integrity questionable [Art 45(2)(d) Dir 2004/18 and now Art 57(4)(c) Dir 2014/24] (paras 42-46).
  • Member States have significant discretion to regulate the conditions applicable to discretionary exclusion grounds, and this is only limited by the impact that such grounds and their exercise can have on freedom of establishment and freedom to provide services. Such impact needs to be subjected to a balancing exercise vis-a-vis the public interest in the probity of the procurement process, under a proportionality assessment (paras 51-53).
  • Under that analytical framework, nothing prevents an extension to the economic operator of (some of) the consequences of the criminal behaviour of one of its former directors, and it is adequate to make the burden of proving effective disengagement and adoption of effective remedial measures (ie, self-cleaning) on the undertaking (paras 54-65).
  • It is adequate, and certainly not incompatible with EU law, to treat the economic operators' silence (or the omission of an implicit duty to keep the contracting authority informed based on a more general duty of loyal cooperation) as evidence of professional misconduct capable of justifying a decision to exclude it from the tender procedure. Where no documentary evidence exists that could allow for a pre-defined check of compliance with (or absence of) exclusion grounds -- notably, those concerning professional misconduct or failure to supply required/adequate/truthful information -- the contracting authority enjoys a broad degree of discretion to assess the circumstances and evidence potentially leading to an exclusion decision (paras 72-83).
  • Importantly, given that the exclusion of the economic operator is not automatic, but rather based on an ad casum assessment, and that such discretionary assessment is subjected to judicial review, this does not place the economic operator in a situation where it cannot defend its interests (para 84).

I think that AG Campos shows two interesting guiding principles that the ECJ should support in its Judgment in Impresa di Costruzioni Ing. E. Mantovani and Guerrato, as well as more generally in the future. First, that contracting authorities need to be given space to exercise discretion aimed at ensuring the probity of the procurement process. And, second and equally important, that the exercise of that discretion needs to be subjected to appropriate checks and balances, including an opportunity to challenge exclusion decisions under appropriate procedural guarantees.

In my view, this functional approach also stresses the need to create effective inter partes procedures for the economic operator and the contracting authority to exchange information prior to the exclusion decision being effective, as well as ensuring swift review of those decisions at a stage where they can still be undone (as the logic in Marina del Mediterraneo requires, see here). Thus, this supports, once more, the need to revise and reform the remedies directive, largely along the lines I drew in A Sanchez-Graells, "'If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It'? EU Requirements of Administrative Oversight and Judicial Protection for Public Contracts", in S Torricelli & F Folliot Lalliot (eds), Administrative Oversight and Judicial Protection for Public Contracts (Larcier, 2017, forthc)].