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decided: May 22, 1899.




[ 174 U.S. Page 644]

 MR. JUSTICE PECKHAM, after stating the facts, delivered the opinion of the court.

The foregoing statement shows that there is a difference of opinion in the courts below as to the law applicable to the

[ 174 U.S. Page 645]

     case. The question is one of importance, involving as it does the principles which should control in regard to the procurement of contracts at public lettings for work to be awarded to the lowest bidder. Assuming the same facts, the courts below have come to opposite conclusions upon the character of the contract and upon the right of the complainant to obtain redress for his alleged wrongs.

It was on account of the general importance of the question and the many lettings for public works by the Government and by municipal corporations which are affected by the law relative to bidding, that this court thought it a proper case to issue the writ of certiorari herein. The cases upon the subject are not entirely harmonious, and we think it well to again consider some of them and so far as possible to remove the doubts which seemingly have arisen in this branch of the law.

Looking in the record before us, we find that the pleadings and proofs taken herein show that for some time prior to the 6th of March, 1893, the city of Portland intended to add to its water supply by bringing to the city the water from a creek or river called Bull Run, some thirty miles distant, and for that propose it had issued through its water committee proposals for bids to build the works, which proposals were divided into several different classes as already stated.

The complainant McMullen, living in San Francisco and being a large stockholder in and manager of the San Francisco Bridge Company, came to Portland for the purpose of giving his attention to the matter, and if possible to make an arrangement with the defendant by which they might together become bidders for the work. He and the defendant had many interviews before the time of delivering the bids arrived, and they finally agreed that each party should put in separate bids in his own or his firm name, or in the name of his company, for certain classes of the work, but that they both should have a common interest in each bid if any were accepted. This community of interest was to be kept secret and concealed from all persons, including the water committee. Each was to know the amount of the other's bid, and

[ 174 U.S. Page 646]

     all bids were to be put in only after mutual consultation and agreement. Bids for the various classes of work were put in as above set forth, and among them the bid for the manufacture and laying of the pipe, which was accepted by the water committee. All of them were put in pursuant to this agreement, part of them in the name of Hoffman & Bates and part in the name of the San Francisco Bridge Company. The bid in the name of the San Francisco Bridge Company for the manufacture of the pipe was nearly $50,000 higher than the amount bid in the name of Hoffman & Bates, and was put in after consultation with and approval by the defendant. This last bid was put in, as stated by Mr. McMullen in his evidence, as a matter of form only, and to keep the name of his company before the public, but it appeared on its face to be a bona fide bid. The water committee received the bids in ignorance of the existence of this agreement and in the supposition that all the bids which were received were made in good faith, and they all received consideration at the hands of the committee. After the computations were made by which it appeared that the bid of the defendant was the lowest for the manufacture and laying of the pipe, the contract was awarded him, and afterwards that portion of the agreement which had been made between the parties to this combination, viz., that relating to the partnership, was reduced to writing, and is set out in the foregoing statement.

Upon these facts the question arising is whether a contract between the parties themselves such as is above set forth is illegal? In order to answer the question we would first naturally ask what is its direct and necessary tendency? Most clearly that it tends to induce the belief that there is really competition between the parties making the different bids, although the truth is that there is no such competition, and that they are in fact united in interest. It would also tend to the belief on the part of the committee receiving the bids that a bona fide bidder, seeking to obtain the contract, regarded the price he named, although much higher than the lowest bid, as a fair one for the purpose of enabling him to realize reasonable profits from its performance. A bid thus made

[ 174 U.S. Page 647]

     amounts to a representation that the sum bid is not in truth an unreasonable or too great a sum for the work to be done. We do not mean it is a warranty to that effect or anything of the kind, but simply that a committee receiving such a bid and assuming it to be a bona fide bid would naturally regard it as a representation that the work to be done, with a fair profit, would, in the opinion of the bidder, cost the amount bid. Hence it would almost certainly tend to the belief that the lower bid was not an unreasonably high one, and that it would be unnecessary and improper to reject all the bids and advertise for a new letting. The fact that there were other bids even higher than that of the San Francisco Bridge Company, for the manufacture and laying of the pipes, does not alter the tendency of the agreement when carried into effect, to create or to strengthen the belief on the part of the committee in the fact of an active competition and the bona fide character of that competition, and that the lowest bid would be in all probability a reasonable one. It is in truth utterly impossible to accurately or fully predict all the vicious results to be apprehended as the natural effect of this kind of an agreement. It cannot be said in all cases just what the actual effect may have been.

The natural tendency and inherent character of the agreement are also unaffected by any evidence produced on the part of the complainant, that the chairman of the water committee had, when examined nearly three years after the occurrence, no recollection as to the bid of the bridge company or that it had any particular effect upon his mind, and that he said that the contract was awarded to the lowest bidder simply because he was the lowest bidder, and without reference to the bid of the bridge company.

The question is not whether in this particular case any member of the water committee did or did not remember the fact that the bridge company had made a bid or that such bid had no effect upon his mind. The question is not as to the effect a particular act in fact had upon a member of the water committee, but what is the tendency and character of the agreement made between the parties; and that tendency

[ 174 U.S. Page 648]

     or character is not altered by proof on the part of a member of the committee, given several years afterwards, that he had no special recollection that such a bid had been made. The evidence is that all the bids that were given received the consideration of the committee, and there can be no doubt that the more bids there were, seemingly of a bona fide character, the more the committee would be impressed with the idea that there was active competition for the work to be done.

It might readily be surmised that if these parties had bid in competition, one or both of the bids would have been lower than their combined bid. It was not necessary, however, to prove so difficult a fact. The inference would be natural.

In Richardson v. Crandall, 48 N.Y. 348, 362, the court said: "In all cases where contracts are claimed to be void as against public policy, it matters not that any particular contract is free from any taint of actual fraud, oppression or corruption. The laws look to the general tendency of such contracts. The vice is in the very nature of the contract, and it is condemned as belonging to a class which the law will not tolerate," citing Atcheson v. Mallon, 43 N.Y. 147.

Although these remarks were made when the court was dealing with the case of a bond taken colore officii, yet the principle applies equally to a case like the one at bar, and indeed it is seen that such was the view of the judge delivering the opinion, since he cited Atcheson v. Mallon, which in its nature is a case very similar to the one now before us.

The vice is inherent in contracts of this kind, and its existence does not in the least depend upon the success which attends the execution of any particular agreement.

In Tool Company v. Norris, 2 Wall. 45, 56, the court said, in speaking as to illegal agreements:

"It is sufficient to observe, generally, that all agreements for pecuniary considerations to control the business operations of the Government, or the regular administration of justice, or the appointments to public offices, or the ordinary course of legislation, are void as against public policy, without reference to the question whether improper means are contemplated or used in their execution."

[ 174 U.S. Page 649]

     And in Rex v. De Berenger, 3 M. & S. 67, 72, cited in Scott v. Brown, (1892) 2 Q.B.D. 724, 730, Lord Ellenborough, C.J., said:

"A public mischief is stated as the object of this conspiracy; the conspiracy is by false rumors to raise the price of the public funds and securities; and the crime lies in the act of conspiracy and combination to effect that purpose, and would have been complete, although it had not been pursued to its consequences, or the parties had not been able to carry it into effect. The purpose itself is mischievous; it strikes at the price of a vendible commodity in the market, and if it gives it a fictitious price by means of false rumors, it is a fraud levelled against all the public, for it is against all such as may possibly have anything to do with the funds on that particular day."

Contracts of the nature of this one are illegal in their nature and tendency, and for that reason no inquiry is necessary as to the particular effect of any one contract, because it would not alter the general nature of contracts of this description or the force of the public policy which condemns them.

In the case at bar the illegal character of the agreement is founded not alone upon the fact that it tends to lessen competition, but also upon the fact of the commission of a fraud by the parties in combining their interests and concealing the same, and in submitting different bids as if they were bona fide, when they know that one of them was so much higher than the other that it could not be honestly accepted, and when they put it in for the sake of keeping up the form and of strengthening the idea of a competition which did not in fact exist. The tendency of such agreements is bad, although in some particular case it might be difficult to show that it actually accomplished a fraud, while its intention to do so would be plain enough. Therefore, when it is urged that these parties had no intention of bidding for this work alone, and that unless they had combined their bids neither would have bid at all, and hence the agreement between them tended to strengthen instead of to suppress competition, this answer to

[ 174 U.S. Page 650]

     the illegality of the transaction is insufficient. The evidence, however, does not show that if these parties had not agreed upon a combination neither would have bid alone. It shows the complainant came to Portland to see the defendant and to conclude their arrangements to go into the combination, but we are by no means of the opinion that the evidence shows that if they had not combined they would not have bid at all. Complainant's company had bid alone at a prior letting, some time before, and had then been the lowest bidder for the contract, which the city did not award because of a lack of means of payment for the work consequent upon a veto by the governor of the bill providing for the issuing of bonds to make such payment. And it seems that the defendant himself was well able to carry on the contract alone.

If it be granted that the fact was proved that neither party would have bid separately, and that by virtue of the combination a bid was made which otherwise would not have been offered, the significance of the other facts in the case is not thereby altered. Those other facts are the concealment of the interest which the parties had in each other's bids, and the making of what were under the circumstances nothing more than fictitious bids for this and the other classes of work for which both parties put in bids, evidently for no other purpose than to endeavor thereby to deceive the committee into believing that there was real competition between them, when in fact there was none. If there had been competition, the bid of each for the contract that was obtained might very likely have been lower than the one that was accepted. It is not necessary to prove that fact in order to show the nefarious character of the agreement.

The reason given for the making of these fictions bids by the complainant, that it was a formal matter and to keep the name of his company before the public, is entirely inadequate. The bids actually put in by them for the other classes of work had the same tendency to strengthen belief in the reality of the competition which in fact did not exist between these persons. The whole transaction was intentionally presented to the water committee in a false and deceptive light.

[ 174 U.S. Page 651]

     Upon general principles it must be apparent that bidding for contracts for public works cannot be surrounded with too many precautions for the purpose of obtaining perfectly fair and bona fide bids. Such precautions are absolutely necessary in order to prevent the successful perpetration of fraud in the way of combinations among those who are ostensible rivals, but who in truth are secretly banded together for the purpose of obtaining contracts from public bodies such as municipal and other corporations at a higher figure than they otherwise would. Just how the fraud is to be successfully worked out by the combination, it is not necessary to show. It is enough to see what the natural tendency is. Public policy requires that officers of such corporations, acting in the interest of others, and not using the sharp eye of a practical man engaged in the conduct of his own business, and not controlled by the powerful motive of self-interest, should, so far as possible and for the sake of the public whom they represent, be protected from the dangers arising out of a concealed combination and from fictitious bids.

To hold contracts like the one involved in this case illegal is not to create any new rule of law for the purpose of affording the protection spoken of. It is but enforcing an old rule, and applying it to such facts as exist in this case because it naturally fits them. Its enforcement here is to but carry into effect the public policy upon which the rule itself is founded. People who have been guilty of the conduct exhibited in this record cannot be heard to say that although their arrangement was fraudulent and illegal, they would nevertheless have obtained the contract even if they had not been guilty of the fraud, because the bids show they were the lowest bidders. The bids might have been lower yet if there had been competition where there was in fact combination. The parties must accept the consequences resulting from entering into the agreement proved in this case, all of which they carried out, and included in which and as a consequence thereof was the agreement with the city and the written agreement of partnership between themselves.

In Hyer v. Richmond Traction Company, 168 U.S. 471, in

[ 174 U.S. Page 652]

     speaking as to the character of the agreement in that case, Mr. Justice Brewer remarked that the vice of a combination "lies in the fact of secrecy, concealment and deception; the one applicant, though apparently antagonizing the other, is really supporting the latter's application, and the public authorities are misled by statements and representations coming from a supposed adverse, but in fact friendly, source."

In that case the demurrer admitted the allegation of the complaint that the combination of the two interests asking for the concession from the common council was known and announced to that body before its decision was made. The case simply shows the part which concealment takes in a ...

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