Agency expands antitrust effort

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Agency expands antitrust effort

The Fair Trade Commission, the country’s antitrust watchdog, will allow two groups representing the private sector to report antitrust cases to the agency and recommend cases be sent to prosecutors if they feel further investigation is needed.

The move is seen as a response to growing criticism from political parties and consumer advocacy groups that the agency has been too passive in turning over antitrust cases to prosecutors.

Under current law, prosecutors can only investigate antitrust cases that have been reported by the Fair Trade Commission. Even if a company turns out to have committed unfair business practices, prosecutors cannot investigate or indict them unless the antitrust agency hands them the case.

By adding the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Korea Federation of SMEs, the Fair Trade Commission is inviting the private sector to report cases to the agency for the first time.

“We will push with reform of the antitrust law that will expand the number of agencies that can report antitrust cases to the Fair Trade Commission,” the FTC Commissioner Chung Jae-chan told lawmakers at the National Assembly on Wednesday.

Currently, only four government agencies can recommend the Fair Trade Commission refer cases to prosecutors.

The commissioner expressed “grave” concerns about taking away the Fair Trade Commission’s exclusive right to hand over cases to prosecutors, saying it could lead to reckless reports that will do more harm than good and hold back business activities.

But many consumer rights groups have criticized the regulation for protecting conglomerates that were engaging in unfair business practices. In 2012, the Fair Trade Commission found that several construction companies colluded on prices during a bid for a massive redevelopment project under the Lee Myung-bak administration.

The commission fined the companies 111.5 billion won ($97.7 million) but never sent the case to prosecutors.

As a result, President Park Geun-hye during her presidential campaign promised to abolish the Fair Trade Commission’s exclusive right to refer cases.

But rather than get rid of the regulation, the administration simply expanded the number of government agencies that can recommend the Fair Trade Commission refer cases to prosecutors.

Before, only prosecutors themselves could file a request for an antitrust case. The Board of Audit and Inspection of Korea, the Public Procurement Service and the Small and Medium Business Administration were added to the list.

The issue of abolishing the regulation started to gain momentum late last year as several top conglomerates were found to have financed foundations created by President Park’s long-time confidante Choi Soon-sil. Choi is currently under investigation by special prosecutors on bribery charges.

Until last year, the agency’s commissioner was reluctant to change the regulation, but last month, during a presentation of policy goals for this year, Chung raised the possibility of allowing more institutions to participate in reporting antitrust cases.

The Fair Trade Commission is planning to hold a public hearing on reforming antitrust regulations on Monday at the National Assembly.

The commission will then draw up a reform bill, which has to pass the legislature.

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