The decision whether to block AT&T’s proposed merger with T-Mobile is apt to be the “legacy” of Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division, a former DOJ official said Tuesday.
Speaking in a conference call with reporters, Allen Grunes, an attorney in the Antitrust Division from 1995 to 2007, said the verdict on the deal planned between the telecommunications companies will ultimately rest in her hands. The DOJ currently is reviewing the proposed $39 billion merger for antitrust pitfalls.
“She’s the decider,” said Grunes, who is the D.C. Bar Association Antitrust Committee chairman. “She’s pledged vigorous horizontal merger enforcement and this merger is where the rubber will meet the road.”
Varney has overseen high-profile antitrust matters, including the decision to approve the Ticketmaster Entertainment Inc.-Live Nation Inc. and Comcast Corp.-NBC Universal Inc. mergers, since she took the helm of the Antitrust Division in April 2009. In May, the Antitrust Division under Varney also made headlines for its condemnation of the potential H&R Block Inc. acquisition of the TaxACT tax-preparation program and NASDAQ OMX Group Inc.’s planned union with NYSE Euronext.
The DOJ filed a suit to bar H&R Block from getting TaxACT. NASDAQ withdrew its unsolicited offer for NYSE after the Department threatened to go to court to block the proposed deal.
Varney told members of Congress last year that the DOJ is not afraid to file antitrust lawsuits.
“We are committed to going to court to block those mergers that will substantially reduce competition,” Varney said in remarks prepared for a House Judiciary Committee hearing. “The commitment to litigate enhances our ability to negotiate settlements that simultaneously enable any pro-competitive aspects of a deal to go forward yet also prevent harm to consumers.”
Grunes said the AT&T-T-Mobile merger is anticompetitive and the Antitrust Division has shown a willingness to oppose “bad horizontal mergers.”
“I don’t think anyone should bet on DOJ being weak on enforcement,” Grunes said. “The lawyers and economists at DOJ are first rate in my experience.”
Ed Black, president and CEO of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, also said in the conference call that the bar has been raised for the Obama administration after it pledged its dedication to ensuring fair competition in the marketplace.
“I think everybody believed that this administration was committed,” Black said. “They understood well the value of competition and they were committed to vigorous enforcement of the antitrust laws.”