On April 20, 2017, the Government of Canada introduced a new tool in the fight against federal fraud. The federal contracting fraud tip line is a joint initiative between the Competition Bureau, Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). It allows anyone who suspects unethical business practices in federal contracting, such as bid-rigging, price-fixing, bribery, undisclosed conflict of interest and fraudulent contract schemes, to report it anonymously. Individuals may report either by calling in to a toll-free number or by completing an online form. The information provided through the tip line will be shared with three federal organizations and will be used to help conduct investigations and to introduce due diligence measures, where warranted. Any suspected criminal activity that is uncovered as a result will be turned over to the Competition Bureau and/or the RCMP.
The tip line complements measures already in place at the Competition Bureau to detect fraud in the realm of federal contracting. The immunity and leniency programs are currently the most relied upon by the Competition Bureau to detect and investigate criminal offences under the Competition Act. Under these programs, individuals with evidence of criminal offenses under the Competition Act are given immunity or lenient treatment if they cooperate with the Competition Bureau and Crown in investigating and prosecuting others implicated in the illegal activity. However, the Competition Bureau has still encountered challenges over the years in securing convictions with the evidence obtained through these programs. The primary reason being insufficient resources and the lack of experience and training of Competition Bureau investigators.
This was evident in the 2014-2015 trial of several information technology companies and individuals charged with conspiracy and working together to obtain contracts with the federal government. The trial arose from charges laid following an investigation at the Competition Bureau and ultimately led to a defeat for the Competition Bureau, due to the weaknesses in the Crown’s case. At trial, it was shown that the Competition Bureau had relied almost exclusively on the testimony of self-interested people who were competing against the accused when making its referral of the case to the Director of Public Prosecutions. The Competition Bureau investigators had essentially taken the immunity and leniency reports of these individuals without independent investigation. The evidence at trial disclosed that the Bureau investigators in charge of the case, while seizing hundreds of thousands of documents from the suspect companies, failed to seek any significant material from the government agencies involved. The resulting, 8-month jury trial resulted in 60 not-guilty verdicts.
It will be interesting to see if the Competition Bureau, with its new Tip Line has learned from such cases and how it investigates future potential criminal offences under the Competition Act. By collaborating with RCMP officials, this hopefully marks the beginning of additional measures being implemented by the Competition Bureau to ensure that allegations of illegal conduct are investigated thoroughly and that only appropriate action is taken. It is not clear whether the Competition Bureau, PSPC or the RCMP will take the lead in investigations arising from tip line complaints. The addition of a combined task force, signals that the Competition Bureau is getting serious in its efforts to detect and investigate Anti-corruption crimes.