Bid-rigging flooring company has ‘shut down’

Aston Carpets & Flooring and its director were convicted after co-conspirator turned

Brendan Smith, who was convicted in 2017 of bid-rigging in contracts won for the company he worked for, Aston Carpets & Flooring. Photograph: Collins Courts

Brendan Smith, who was convicted in 2017 of bid-rigging in contracts won for the company he worked for, Aston Carpets & Flooring. Photograph: Collins Courts

 

Aston Carpets & Flooring, the first company in the history of the State to be criminally convicted for bid-rigging, was this week struck off by the Companies Registration Office after its owners said they “shut it down”.

Aston, which supplied flooring for the headquarters of major multinationals, including Google and Mastercard, was struck off following an application from its directors, Mayo businessmen Alan Crean and Brian Ruane.

The application said it “ceased trading”, and was accompanied by a letter from the Revenue Commissioners that raised no objection to the application.

The company was at the centre of a five-year investigation by State competition enforcers over price-rigging.

Along with its former director and manager Brendan Smith, it was convicted of bid-rigging in 2017, a landmark case for the State for the offence. The prosecution said Mr Smith, who the court heard had a cocaine problem, engaged in bid-rigging on 16 different contracts over two years.

Evidence emerged that he had met a co-conspirator, David Radburn, from Aston’s main rival, Carpet Centre Contracts, at cafes around Dublin city to discuss how to carve up contracts between them.

The scheme was exposed when Mr Radburn agreed to provide evidence to the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission. He received immunity.

Despite the expensive investigation, and the fact that Aston had won more than €750,000 worth of contracts during the period of the collusion, the original sentences levied were a €7,500 fine against Mr Smith, as well as a suspended three-month prison sentence and a five-year disqualification as a director.

The company was fined €10,000.

‘Undue leniency’

Some commentators, including former State competition official Paul Gorecki, who wrote an academic paper on the case, criticised the sentences as a “setback for cartel enforcement”.

The Director of Public Prosecutions subsequently appealed the sentences for “undue leniency”, and last year Mr Smith’s fine was increased sixfold. Aston’s fine remained unchanged.

The ultimate controlling shareholder of the firm, Mr Crean, also operates another flooring business, Crean Mosaics. Neither Mr Crean nor Crean Mosaics were charged with any wrongdoing in the case.

In his original judgment, the sentencing judge said Aston’s business had, by 2017, been “transferred” to Crean Mosaics, which lists major multinational and State clients on its website.

Speaking to The Irish Times last night, Mr Crean said it was not correct to say Aston’s operation had simply “transferred” to Crean Mosaics.

“No. It is shut down completely,” he said.

When asked if, instead, Crean Mosaics now simply operates in the same market segment previously occupied by Aston, he replied: “No. [Aston Carpets & Flooring] did carpets. We do very little carpets. Tiling is our main game.”