Saturday, September 16, 2023

Prosecutorial Discretion: Attorney General Edition

In the late 1980's, I went with a friend to help her work the Ambassador's Ball at the French Embassy, a pay party and charity auction to support MS research.  I bought my first tuxedo and showed up early to sign people in and help set up.  After an hour or so, our job was done and we went inside to join the party.  

We grabbed a drink at the open bar, and into a big room containing the items being auctioned off: cases of rare wine, catered dinners, and vacation homes in exotic locales.  My favorite, or at least the one I might have bid on but for the money, was a week at a Chamonix chalet.  In front of each item was a lined piece of paper where people wrote down their bids.  

As the night wore on, I noticed two couples actively bidding for the chalet.  One couple would watch the other write down a bid, wait a while, and then walk over and bid again.  This went on for three or four bids, until I noticed the two couples talking to one another.  

At the time, I worked as a staff economist at the Antitrust Division of the US Dept. of Justice whose mission is to protect competition by challenging anti-competitive mergers and prosecuting price-fixing conspiracies.  Even talking about prices is viewed a criminal conspiracy subject to a prison term of up to ten years.  

I had worked on and written about a number of bid-rigging conspiracies--dealers at antique auctions, loggers at Forest Service timber auctions, and frozen perch sellers at Navy Procurement auctions--and I was excited to actually witness one. 

The event was chaired by Ursula Meese, whose husband Ed was my big boss, the Attorney General.   I saw him standing by himself in the center of the room, so I walked over, showed him my badge--that's what I liked to call my work ID--and told him what was going on. 

"Do you want me to take 'em down?" I asked.  

He smiled and said "Book 'em Danno."  [reference for those too young for the allusion]


NOTES: The Economist has reported on my articles on bid rigging albeit with a small mistake.  

Middle panel of my first-day class slide shows Attorney General Meese and me in the Reagan Justice Dept.  

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