After the announcement for the Kroger and Albertsons’ merger, six state Attorneys General (AG) wrote the two firms about antitrust concerns. Idaho’s AG was one of them. Noting the legal move, the Idaho Business Review asked the AG’s office both for a comment on the Albertsons’ case and for some insight on how the AG’s office decides to pursue an antitrust-related action.
With regards to the ongoing situation with Kroger’s and Albertsons’, Scott Graf, spokesperson for the AG’s office, remarked that the agency does not comment on ongoing actions and investigations.
With regards to our other request, Brett DeLange, a deputy attorney general for Idaho and the division chief of the Consumer Protection Division, explained in detail how Idaho pursues consumer protection actions.
The AG’s Consumer Protection Division has three broad areas of endeavor to serve the Gem State and its citizens: enforcement, consumer complaints and education.
Enforcement involves upholding the laws that the legislature has passed.
“The Attorney General has been assigned a variety of responsibilities by the Legislature that relate to consumer protection, telephone soliciting, charitable trusts, tobacco and also antitrust competition…They assigned the AG duties to enforce certain laws in in our state that involve anti-competitive conduct or mergers that may substantially reduce competition.”
The division also has attorneys and specialists who listen and work to resolve complaints by consumers about their dealings with Idaho business. The AG’s office also has an educational outreach role to better shield state citizens from scams and fraud by informing them on how to protect themselves.
Idaho has a shelf of laws designed to protect consumers, including the Consumer Protection Act, the Competition Act, the Telephone Solicitation Act and the Charitable Solicitation Act. Beyond that broad responsibility, the process for taking an enforcement action is handled on a cost-by-case basis because, as DeLange explained.
“Our taking action as a result, whether it’s by investigation, by letter, by lawsuit, or negotiation, each matter is unique to itself,” he said. “The specific facts of a case will dictate the course of events. It’s not unusual for us to talk to other state AG offices or federal law enforcement authorities. And it’s not unusual for us to write businesses with regards to concerns or regards to investigations.”
The decision to pursue an action or start an investigation is made at the top, he added: “The decisions are always the AG’s to make. We work for the AG and he is the one who makes these decisions…(Our) function is keeping abreast and sharing information and input with regards to various matters. So it’s not unusual for us to look at matters that the AG has reason to believe there could be a violation or there could be an issue with regards to one of our state laws.”
The number of enforcement actions varies by year, DeLange explained, with only a handful of actions one year to maybe over 25 the next.
The flip side of enforcement is settlement. Many enforcement actions pursued by the AG end in settlements that usually include the payment of damages.
As to the number and dollar amounts of settlements, DeLange said: “It ebbs and flows each year just depending upon the cases. Sometimes you can have 25 enforcement actions and $100 in recovery, or one enforcement action and million-dollar recovery — because each case is unique in terms of the harm done or the settlement terms. Last year, at least, I think we had 12 enforcement actions. Some of them were fairly small in terms of dollar size, but they are what they are.”
The big corporate settlements are the ones that get the most media attention. The Idaho Business Review asked what the largest settlement was that was received by the state through the AG’s actions.
DeLange stated that the tobacco industry settlement was the largest: “Idaho has now received over a half billion dollars pursuant to our tobacco settlement. We get about $20 to $22 million a year in continued settlement payments. Over 23 years, I think it’s over $550 million…That’s money that has now actually been received…Our settlement agreement there provides for payments in perpetuity.”
In comparison, the settlements from the opioid lawsuits are much smaller: “When all is said and done, those probably will get $180 to $200 million dollars, but that will be down the road 18 to 20 years from now. So far to date, the state has received about $12 million. Local cities and counties have received about $8 million and our regional health districts have received about $5 million.”
“The Consumer Protection Division issues an annual report every year that we put online to report on all of our enforcement actions,” DeLange explained. “Anyone is welcome to go to the AG’s website and under consumer protection link, you’ll see a link for annual reports…You can read up on every year’s annual report since 1990 and see what we report for that year.”
The reports only include settlement amounts actually collected. Settlements on paper that have not been collected by the state are not included in the annual reports.
The AG’s office does not represent individual consumers, but it “prohibits commercial sellers from engaging in unfair competition and unfair and deceptive business practices in trade and commerce.”
The specifics of how the Division of Consumer Protection will act is outlined on the division’s webpage.
“We enforce the law, but we also try to help citizens work their problems out,” DeLange remarked, mentioning that his staff can help mediate between consumers and businesses. “We have what’s called the dispute process of mediation. We handle hundreds and hundreds of Idaho consumer complaints a year with our consumer specialists. We’ll take a complaint, contact the business, and ask, ‘What’s your response? What can we do about this?’ That results in hundreds of thousands of dollars separately that consumers receive as a result of this dispute resolution process.”
“Consumer education has been very important to AG Wasden over the years,” said DeLange. “So our specialists go around the state to high schools, business groups, senior centers, (etc.) to talk about consumer education matters. It may sound a little cliché…he will win the war on consumer fraud with informed citizens protecting themselves…We have a variety of consumer education materials on our website that we have prepared, and that we share for free with our citizens…Our goal is to reach all the different portions of the state to talk to our citizens.”a