Consumer Group Seeking Senate Probe

Author:
Publish date:
Updated on

A consumer group is seeking a Senate probe into whether antitrust lawyers
inappropriately attempted to influence the Department of Justice's effort to
wrest media-merger review from the Federal Trade Commission.

The probe, contained in a letter to Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ernest
(Fritz) Hollings (D-S.C.), was requested by the Media Access Project, a
public-interest law firm that joined other consumer groups in denouncing the
proposed change in federal merger-review policy.

The MAP asked Hollings to review the merger-review change 'aggressively' and
to press DOJ and FTC officials about whether 'there is a problem in need of
repair.'

Last week, the DOJ and the FTC were moments away from announcing that the DOJ
would review all media mergers, but the plan collapsed when Hollings' staff
complained that Congress had not been give prior notification.

The plan was supposed to be unveiled at a press conference last Thursday by
FTC chairman Timothy Muris and DOJ Antitrust Division chief Charles James.

In a Jan. 22 letter, MAP president and CEO Andrew Jay Schwartzman said he
wanted the Senate to determine whether private antitrust lawyers were aware of
the change in the merger review before Muris disclosed it to other members of
the FTC.

'The MAP stresses that it lacks any evidence of questionable conduct.
However, reporters covering this matter have implied privately and in print that
some attorneys in private practice at the least had advance knowledge of plans
to divide antitrust jurisdiction,' Schwartzman said.

Antitrust lawyers quoted in several major media outlets indicated that the
DOJ-FTC merger-review change would do some good, mainly because it would allow
each agency to develop expertise over particular industries.

However, FTC commissioner Mozelle Thompson complained that Muris failed to
give him enough time to review the new policy.

Schwartzman's letter did not explain what legal or ethical breach would have
been at issue if Muris discussed the change with private lawyers prior to
disclosing it to others within the FTC.

However, Schwartzman indicated that private antitrust lawyers were more
interested in seeing their mergers gain approval than in improving antitrust
enforcement.

'Insofar as chairman Muris intentionally kept his fellow FTC commissioners in
the dark about these negotiations, the involvement of the defense bar would be a
matter of considerable significance. The public deserves to know if this were
the case, and chairman Muris and Assistant Attorney General James deserve
exoneration if such implications turn out not to be true,' Schwartzman's letter
said.

Hollings' staff is planning to meet Wednesday with DOJ and FTC officials to
discuss the change in merger-review policy.

'The agreement is extremely important to the heads of both agencies, and they
will work very closely with each other and Capitol Hill to reach a resolution,'
an FTC source last week.

Related