Whistle blowers take a hit despite immunity: departing Competition Bureau Commissioner

John Pecman says immunity program necessary to uncover price-fixing schemes

Competition Bureau Commissioner John Pecman has taken on bread price-fixing and the real estate data monopoly over his fives years as chief watchdog for consumers, but hopes his successor takes a deeper dive into the digital realm.

In an interview ahead of his last day on the job, Pecman said he and his team had been "extremely busy on the investigative front." He pushed an approach that avoided going to court on every matter, instead hoping to convince corporations to settle.

"My first instinct was always to resolve matters outside the courts, having spent too much time before them and knowing how unpredictable and costly that whole process is," he said. "We can do more because all of our resources aren't tied up fighting a case."

It was a lesson Pecman learned well, having inherited the Competition Bureau's long-standing battle with the Toronto Real Estate Board around the board's practice of blocking members from posting sales data online. The case was launched in 2011, and after several appeals, has yet to wrap up. TREB has said it would take its challenge to the Supreme Court of Canada, leaving the status of the current ruling in limbo.

That drawn out battle is something Pecman hopes his bureau can avoid in its latest high-profile case, the alleged industry-wide bread price-fixing scandal that was uncovered when Loblaw came forward and implicated itself as well as competitors Walmart, Sobeys, Metro and Giant Tiger. That investigation is ongoing and Loblaw's rival grocers vehemently deny their involvement.

The confessions of Loblaws and parent company George Weston Ltd., which also owns the Weston Foods bakery, gave them immunity from potential price-fixing penalties that could include fines of up to $25 million and imprisonment for up to 14 years or both.

The Competition Bureau's controversial immunity program has been instrumental in uncovering price-fixing schemes that might not otherwise come to light, but it has also been criticized for allowing offenders to get away with crimes.

Pecman argued the program was necessary because price-fixing is so difficult to catch. He said Canada's whistleblower policies were also similar to those used by more than 150 competition authorities around the world and are "the number one tool to detect, investigate and prosecute cartels."

He said companies that do get immunity through the policy still suffer because their reputation and brand often take a hit, and sometimes they face legal action. In the Loblaw case, Pecman said he knew of at least eight "private actions" or lawsuits filed against it.

Regardless of how outstanding cases end, Pecman said he believed he leaves the bureau in a state that is more open, transparent and collaborative in its work.

As for his legacy, he would like to be known for changing the bureau from being perceived as "a walled-off organization that just wanted to stick to its knitting and conduct its investigations in its offices" to one that takes a community approach to working with the business and legal community to ensure the economy is effective and competitive.

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