OFT upgrades cartel team to build on £270m BA rap

The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) is ramping up its cartel and criminal practice just days after hitting British Airways (BA) with a multimillion-pound price-fixing fine.

Senior prosecutor David Rawlings from HM Revenue and Customs has been drafted in as a senior criminal lawyer and is the first in a line of possible legal appointments to the OFT’s criminal team.

Rawlings spent 10 years at the bar with 1 Gray’s Inn Square and Furnival Chambers before joining the Inland revenue.

The news of Rawlings’ appointment comes after the OFT joined forces with the US Department of Justice to slap BA with a £270m fine for colluding with Virgin over levies added to tickets to cover the rising cost of oil.

The expansion of the OFT’s legal capability also follows the watchdog being granted new criminal powers through the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations, which come into force in April.

The changes will make the regulator able to dole out sanctions, including a direction to imprison defendants.

Simon Williams, OFT director of cartel investigations, said: “With the new powers just having been announced, we’re at an early stage in deciding how to beef up our criminal enforcement expertise. Additional recruitment is likely to be a part of our strategy, although much of the expansion will come from developing our staff’s homegrown talent.”

On the BA price-fixing fine, Williams, who led the four-strong case team, said he would not “apologise for the fact Virgin came out of the cartel unscathed”.

“The stark difference in our dealings with BA and Virgin comes down to Virgin using the leniency programme and blowing the whistle,” explained Williams. “We want to make it clear to lawyers that they should advise their competition clients that it’s in their interests to use the programme sooner rather than later.”

Both BA and Virgin are still tangled in a US class action brought by US firm Cohen Milstein Hausfeld & Toll (www.thelawyer.com, 2 August).

UK claimants can join the US action and the firm is lobbying to develop a system in the UK to give UK claimants the same level of restitution as in the US.