Posts Tagged ‘Christine Varney’
Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday cautioned farmers and producers at a workshop in D.C. that Justice Department antitrust enforcement in the agriculture industry won’t fix all their troubles.

Holder said the DOJ has heard the concerns of producers and farmers at several previous workshops about competition in the agriculture industry. The Attorney General said he and his colleagues in the Barack Obama administration are working to bring “market transparency, market access and market fairness” to the industry.

“Of course, we know that antitrust enforcement actions will not solve every problem. We know that,” Holder said. “But because of the insights that you have provided … I believe that we will be better prepared to take the steps necessary to ensure a fair and competitive marketplace both for producers as well as consumers.”

The Antitrust Division under Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney has been active in taking on antitrust concerns in the agriculture industry.

Varney has been a constant presence at agriculture workshops across the country about competition issues. And her division has acted on antitrust concerns, taking on companies including dairy giant Dean Foods. The DOJ sued the company in January to undo its 2009 purchase of some milk processing plants in Wisconsin.

The DOJ and Agriculture Department, which hosted the workshop Wednesday, also created a task force in June to review ways to encourage competition in the agriculture industry. Holder said the group created a “simple and accessible online submission process” for members of the agriculture community to submit complaints and concerns about industry and market issues.

The Attorney General said farmers and producers should continue to share their comments with the DOJ.

“I also want to be clear about something: the critical channel of communication that we have opened this past year … will remain open,” Holder said. “And the Departments of Justice and Agriculture will continue working in close coordination to address your concerns and to ensure fairness and opportunity for America’s farmers, producers and agriculture industry.”

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010

Justice Department employees packed the Great Hall on Wednesday morning to give First Lady Michelle Obama a rousing greeting as she thanked them for their service.

First Lady Michelle Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder (photo by Ryan J. Reilly / Main Justice).

Justice Department employees lined the balcony above the Great Hall to catch a glimpse of the First Lady (photo by Ryan J. Reilly / Main Justice).

DOJ employees packed the Great Hall to see Michelle Obama (photo by Ryan J. Reilly / Main Justice).

Since her husband took office last year, Obama has visited several government agencies to thank federal employees for their service.

DOJ staffers filed into the standing-room-only Great Hall as early as 7:30 a.m. Others took up posts on the third-floor balcony above the auditorium. When Obama emerged from the rear of the stage just after 11:30 a.m., a sea of cameras and phones sprang up from the crowd to capture the moment. Later, shrieks rang out when Obama approached the crowd to shake hands with career attorneys and top-ranking DOJ officials.

The greeting was so warm, in fact, that Attorney General Eric Holder offered the First Lady a job at DOJ.

“I can tell you that, like the president, she has a brilliant legal mind,” Holder said. “I have been so impressed by her legal skills that I’m going to make her an offer — right now — to join the best lawyers in the world, right here at DOJ.”

The First Lady praised both the Attorney General and the work of the employees of the Department of Justice.

“One of the privileges of being First Lady has been the opportunity to visit so many agencies over the past year or so so that I can thank all of you, really, for the hard work and dedication that you’ve all put in,” Obama said. “You put in long hours.  And a lot of people look at the President, they look at your boss, and they say, well, you’re working hard.  But the truth is — and we all know this — you all are putting in that kind of time as well.  You’re making sacrifices. You miss time with your families. And often, you do it without getting any recognition from anyone.

“So I want to let you know how much that we value everything that you’re doing here, however long you’ve been doing it,” she added.

Obama also gave a shout-out to those who work outside Justice Department headquarters — Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives employees, FBI agents, U.S. Marshals and the U.S. Attorneys.

Justice Department employees Celeste Simmons, Janean Bentley, and Cee Cee Simpson Allaway said they were the first three to arrive at 7:30 a.m.

“It was worth it, I would do it again anytime,” said Simmons, an investigator in the Civil Rights Division’s Disability Rights Section who has been with the department for 15 years.

They were joined by Sabrina Jenkins, a fellow employee in the Disability Rights Section, and Angela Parks of the Criminal Division. All said they were thrilled to meet and shake hands with the First Lady and showed off pictures they took of Obama.

Joining the First Lady and the Attorney General on stage were some of the Justice Department’s longest serving employees, including Jack Keeney, Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Criminal Division, who at age 88 still holds an office at DOJ headquarters.

The other long-serving employees on stage were: Civil Division trial attorney Marshall T. Golding, who joined DOJ in April 1957; FBI employee Earl F. Hostetler Jr., who began his career in June 1961; Justice Management Division security specialist Barbara J. Russell, who began her career with the Department of Justice in July 1961; Civil Division legal assistant William H. Wiggins, who has been with DOJ since December 1963; FBI telephone operator Mary C. Smith, who entered the FBI in June 1964; FBI support services technician Marcia M. Taylor, who began her FBI career in September 1965; Civil Division mail clerk Eugene W. Crane, who started his career at DOJ in January 1966; Civil Division Appellate Staff Director Robert E. Kopp, who has served since August 1966; Justice Management Division Procurement Analyst Patricia Ann Belcher; Civil Rights Analyst Myra D. Wastaff; and Senior Counsel for Appeals in the Criminal Division Sidney Glazer.

Officials seated in front of the crowd included Acting Deputy Attorney General Gary Grindler, Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, and Assistant Attorneys General Tony West, Christine Varney and Ronald Weich.

Story updated at 4:45 p.m.

Attorney General Eric Holder and First Lady Michelle Obama’s remarks are available below.

Good morning. Thank you all for being here today to help me welcome our nation’s First Lady – and my good friend – to the Department of Justice.

In the recent past, including many miles on the campaign trail, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know our First Lady. And I can tell you that, like the President, she has a brilliant legal mind. I have been so impressed by her legal skills that I’m going to make her an offer- right now- to join the best lawyers in the world, right here at DOJ.

I’ve also learned that she has a deep appreciation for the work and many responsibilities of the Justice Department. But what’s impressed me most, and what I admire most about her, is her commitment to justice.

Many of you already know her extraordinary story – that she grew up in a small apartment on the South Side of Chicago and, with hard work, determination and the support of a loving family, made her way to Princeton University, then Harvard Law School, then on to one of the nation’s premier law firms. And she decided long ago – long before she became First Lady – that she wanted to harness the power of the law to generate positive social change and build a more just society.

That commitment took her in unexpected directions. As she once put it – and I know many of you feel this way, too – she realized that she, “wanted to have a career motivated by passion and not just money.” And so she built on her legal training to serve communities, assemble volunteers, and – despite the pay cut – spend her time inspiring young people to enter public service themselves.

And did I mention that it was because of the law that she met a certain summer associate – and her law firm mentee – who would change her life? She has said that she, and I quote, “wasn’t expecting much” of the young Harvard Law student who everyone else was raving about. But shortly after they met, our President summoned all the charm he could muster - and all the moves he had – and apparently it worked. From that time on, our First Lady has been, not only a distinguished attorney, executive, and community leader, but also, in her husband’s words, “the rock” of her family. Indeed, she does seem to do it all: lawyer, advocate, visionary and, above all, the mother of two wonderful daughters, a supportive and engaged wife, and a wonderful daughter herself.

Over the past year and a half, the First Lady has also become “the rock” of our nation – a committed, and already accomplished, force for positive change, especially for young people. Last month, I had the privilege to join her in Detroit, where she kicked off a day of mentoring and called on young students to work hard and, just as important, to give back. And her “Let’s Move!” campaign to eliminate childhood obesity is already creating a healthier – and, in a very real sense, more just – America.

But her commitment and her tireless efforts don’t stop there. She also works to support military families, to serve as a role model for working women, to promote the arts and arts education, and – of course – to continue to make sure that my boss still takes out the trash. That can’t still be true!

When I think about the First Lady, I’m struck by the fact that, though I’ve only known her for a few years, it feels like so many. That’s the kind of friend our speaker is. From the day we met, she has made me feel welcome and at home. And so in that same spirit, I’d like us to welcome her to our home here at the Department of Justice. Ladies and gentlemen – the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama.


MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. Thank you so much. (Applause.) Thank you, everybody. Thank you. Such a warm and wonderful welcome. I am thrilled to be here.

I want to start by thanking our outstanding Attorney General, Eric Holder, your boss, for that very kind introduction, and also for the wonderful work that he’s doing here at the Department of Justice. He is — I could say the same accolades as he said about me. He’s just been a phenomenal support, not just to the President but to me personally.

As he mentioned, he joined me along with celebrities and other people from the administration in Detroit to do some very important mentoring in Detroit. And he was just amazing. I mean, you know how busy he is. And my view is that if this man can take the time out to fly and spend a day talking to young people, I mean, sitting down at a table with kids, and talking about how they can pursue their dreams, how he can use his own story to show them that they can reach for passions that maybe they thought they never could, that he, in his own role, serves as a role model. If he can do that, then we all can do that.

And I know that there’s so many of you here who are following that lead. And I’m grateful to him and I’m grateful to all of you for serving in that role. So we have to give him an incredible thank you. (Applause.)

I’m told that Eric started out as a 25-year-old law graduate — school graduate working in the Public Integrity Section here at DOJ. You were 25?

ATTORNEY GENERAL HOLDER: That was five years ago.

MRS. OBAMA: Five years ago. (Laughter.) And even though he’s been around the block a few times since then — (laughter) — only five years — he’s never lost that sense of responsibility that comes from working to uphold our highest legal principles. It’s a responsibility that all of you share, and one that some of you have been shouldering for quite a while, I understand. That’s why I want to take a moment to recognize the folks here on the stage with me. These are some of the longest-serving employees here at the Department of Justice. I don’t know the numbers here, but they’ve been here for quite some time, and I want to take some time to give them a round of applause for their dedication. (Applause.)

It’s just wonderful to see people who have made commitments for decades to government service, and it’s important for the world to see, particularly young people, to see how people are building and have built lifetimes here serving the broader community.

And I know that even though we’re here at Main Justice, I also want to recognize the men and women who serve as the faces of this agency in communities all across the country: the FBI and the ATF agents. (Applause.) The U.S. Marshals and the hardworking folks at the U.S. Attorneys offices who are on the ground every day — yay, yes — (applause) — they’re keeping us safe and protecting our most basic rights.

And when I travel, one of the great things I get to do is usually see the U.S. Attorneys on the ground. So our congratulations and thanks goes out to everyone.

One of the privileges of being First Lady has been the opportunity to visit so many agencies over the past year or so so that I can thank all of you, really, for the hard work and dedication that you’ve all put in. You put in long hours. And a lot of people look at the President, they look at your boss, and they say, well, you’re working hard. But the truth is — and we all know this — you all are putting in that kind of time as well. You’re making sacrifices. You miss time with your families. And often, you do it without getting any recognition from anyone.

So I want to let you know how much that we value everything that you’re doing here, however long you’ve been doing it, because I know we have a lot of newbies here, folks who are just joining the department as well. Yay, all right, let’s give them a round of applause, too. (Applause.)

So that’s one of the reasons I’ve been doing these visits, to make sure that you all know that even in the heat of change and all the work that goes on here, that we haven’t forgotten the work that you do and the sacrifices that you make.

These visits, though, also help me get a better understanding of what’s happening in some of these agencies, to listen, to learn about your work and to help spotlight the difference that you make in the lives of so many Americans, because when I show up, there are cameras that usually come, and I think it’s important for the people around the country to know that government is working hard for the American people and that it’s made up of everyday Americans who are making sacrifices on their behalf.

And I have to admit that I’m especially excited to be here at DOJ because we have a lot in common, many of us here. As many of you know, long before I lived in the White House, I worked in Chicago, and I did a little law thing. (Laughter.) I decided to study law for some of the same reasons many of you did. Number one, math was really hard. (Laughter.) And as my mother said, I talked a lot — (laughter) — and could write pretty good. But it’s also because I’ve seen the power that law has to change people’s lives in a very real and meaningful way. And I knew that lawyers had the ability to help turn words on a page into justice in the world –- to keep a neighborhood safe; to keep a family in their home; to leave our children a world that is a little more equal and a little more just.

And I also — as Eric mentioned — I met this guy named Barack Obama while I was studying law. (Laughter.) Yes, he was my mentee — a summer associate when I was a first-year associate. So that was a nice little perk from my law career. (Laughter.)

And here at DOJ, you all represent the ideals that drew us all to this business in the first place: those principles of equality, fairness and the rule of law. Your responsibility is not to a particular party — and that’s important for people to understand — or to a particular administration or to a President. You work for the American people. You do battle every day on behalf of the most vulnerable among us. And you touch the lives of virtually every American in ways large and small -– even if they don’t realize it.

For a department that started out with a single, part-time employee in 1789, the workload here at DOJ has really never stopped growing. And I know you all are feeling that right now.

Whether it’s keeping our nation safe from terrorist attacks, or bringing our most hardened criminals to justice, protecting consumers or safeguarding our civil rights, your work has never been more important that it is today.

That’s especially true in the wake of the worst environmental disaster that we’ve ever faced here in this nation. And I know that the Attorney General and several members of the leadership team have traveled to the Gulf, and many folks here in this agency are working tirelessly to ensure that accountability is going on, that we’re protecting taxpayer dollars, and that we’re helping those affected by the oil spill really get back on their feet.

And people need to know that the Department of Justice is at the center of that work. But it’s not just the work that you do that makes this place so special. It’s what you all bring to the work that you do. It’s the passion, and the persistence and the energy that you bring to your cases.

And I know to be here, taking pay cuts as many of you do, you’ve got to be doing it because of passion because all of you all would be at a firm somewhere if it didn’t mean something to you.

But that’s true whether you’re an attorney, a paralegal, a librarian, a support staffer — truly, the dedication that you’ve all shown is extraordinary. And I’m proud — very proud — of the work that you’ve done, and I’m extremely grateful for what you’re doing every day.

And it is not an easy job. That I know as well. But the fact that so many of you have stuck around for so long really says something about the culture of this agency.

Administrations, as you know, can come and go, but the pride that you put into your work, it never fades. As Attorney General Holder likes to say, working here isn’t just about making a living. And that’s so important for young people out there to know and to see. These jobs, it’s not about earning the dollar; it’s about making a difference in someone’s life.

And this group really takes those words to heart. I’m told that in the first six months of this year, your attorneys have taken on 20 pro bono cases -– from custody battles and landlord-tenant disputes, to domestic violence and personal injury cases. Pro bono, for those of you who don’t know, is completely free legal service.

And 50 of your attorneys, I understand, have staffed legal clinics right here in D.C., helping to write wills, to file taxes and to do other important work for members right here in this community who couldn’t otherwise afford it.

In the end, that’s really what the Department of Justice is all about. That’s really what the field of law is supposed to be about. You all help make the promise of our laws a reality for every single American regardless of their race, their standing or their political affiliation.

From the Great Hall of the Supreme Court to a folding table in a legal clinic, you help our families secure the protection that they need and the rights that they deserve. And you do it with a level of fairness and compassion that stands as an example to us all.

So for that reason, I’m here to show you, along with the rest of America, our gratitude, our admiration. These are going to be tough times. And we’re going to need every one of you to buckle up and work even harder. But it’s easier to have that conversation here because you all know what hard work means. You all know what sacrifice means.

And it’s important for us to share those values with the next generation. We need to replace you all. We need to start working on the next generation of staffers and attorneys and librarians and paralegals who are going to fill these seats in decades to come. And they’re going to do that because of the work that they see you doing. They’re going to do that because of the pride that you take in your work. We are the role models for the next generation.

So we are grateful for your work. And I just look forward to coming out there and shaking a few hands.

So thank you, thank you so much. (Applause.)

Monday, March 29th, 2010

The Justice Department said Monday morning it has cleared networking giant Cisco Systems Inc.’s  bid to acquire video conferencing provider Tandberg ASA. In a statement, the agency emphasized it had “cooperated closely” with its European counterparts in reviewing the deal, a sign of a smoother relationship between Brussels and Washington D.C., after the two agencies clashed on a similar deal earlier this year.

Cisco, Tandberg, and other industry participants signed waivers for the Antitrust Division and the European Commission’s Directorate General for Competition to share information and coordinate on potential remedies to ensure interoperability between Cisco’s new teleconferencing products and those of other companies. The Justice Department said it had taken those commitments into account, along with other factors, in reaching its determination not to challenge the deal.

“This investigation was a model of international cooperation,” Antitrust chief Christine Varney said in a statement. “The parties should be commended for making every effort to facilitate the close working relationship between the Department of Justice and the European Commission.”

The two agencies clashed last year in reviewing database software provider Oracle Corp.’s $7.4 billion purchase of Sun Microsystems Inc. The Justice Department OK’d the deal last summer, but European Union officials issued a set of objections to the sale in early November.

The DOJ responded to those objections by saying the sale did not raise major anti-competitive concerns and nudged the E.U. to clear the transaction.  Brussels responded with visible annoyance, but eventually cleared the deal.

Then in November, the Justice Department hired E.U. antitrust expert Rachel Brandenburger as a new adviser on international matters. A better working relationship between the two agencies seemed to follow. When the DOJ signed off on Microsoft Corp.’s advertising pact with Yahoo! Inc. in February, for example, it waited until European regulators had announced a decision.

On the Cisco deal, the DOJ said it was satisfied with the commitments the company made to Brussels. Cisco promised that its teleconferencing products could operate with products from other companies. Cisco had already entered the videoconferencing business when it announced its $3 billion purchase of the Norwegian company last October. The E.U. announced its decision earlier today.

“The commitments are designed to foster the development of open operating standards,” the DOJ said in its statement. “The department views those commitments as a positive development that likely will enhance competition among producers of telepresence systems.”

Cisco could not immediately be reached for comment on how the trans-oceanic review was handled.

Friday, March 26th, 2010

The Justice Department’s Antitrust Division chief Christine Varney on Friday reiterated her agency’s tough line on enforcement and said it will take a close look at mergers even if only a small portion of a deal presents a problem.

At a brown bag lunch in Washington, D.C., Varney listed some recent examples of what she was talking about. She said settlements with Bemis Company Inc. — which makes plastic packaging for meats and cheeses — and the concert promoter and ticketing giant that is now Live Nation Entertainment  Inc. -  illustrate that even if the overlap between two merging companies is small, the Justice Department will still consider a range of remedies to address its concerns.

Bemis agreed last month to sell some assets in order to complete its $1.2 billion purchase of a unit owned by Rio Tinto - Alcan Packaging Food Americas. Ticketmaster agreed in January to license its software, divest some ticketing assets, and submit to a strict behavioral regime to win regulatory approval of its blockbuster $2.5 billion deal with Live Nation.

“We see a lot of this, where a very small percentage of the deal — 12 to 15 percent — presents the problem,” Varney said.

Merger activity is down from a 1990s peak of around 5,000 deals seeking regulatory clearance each year. Last year, Varney said, federal regulatory agencies looked into about 700 mergers and were on track to review around the same number this year.

Varney hinted that the downturn in merger work has allowed the Antitrust Division to shift some resources to examining possible anti-competitive conduct by individual firms. In response to a question about non-merger cases the government is looking at, Varney declined to comment other than to say: “the division is quite busy, and mergers are down.”

Friday’s informal session, hosted by the American Bar Association, is the first in a series of meetings suggested by Varney to promote transparency in the DOJ’s antitrust enforcement efforts. Another lunch session will be scheduled with policy and appellate deputy Philip Weiser and economist Carl Shapiro, and a third with criminal deputy Scott Hammond.

In Friday’s session, Varney, along with civil deputy Molly Boast and litigator William Cavanaugh, touched on the transactions and policy matters the Justice Department has examined in the past year.

The trio also addressed questions on:

- The agency’s relationship with the Transportation Department in approving airline alliances (DOJ believes it is listened to, but DOT has a broader public interest mandate).

- When bundling is anti-competitive (DOJ reviewed the literature but didn’t cite any in its Ticketmaster settlement).

- Whether the DOJ might revisit the last administration’s report on monopolies (no plans to do so.)

Boast also answered a question on Attorney General Eric Holder’s relationship with the Antitrust Division (he met with staff last month, and was “warm and charming.”)

Varney promised to save some news for the ABA’s spring meeting next month, including an update on any revisions to the guidelines that  the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission use to evaluate whether a merger might violate antitrust laws.

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Friday, March 19th, 2010

Mississippi Lawmaker Asks Holder to Block FEMA Trailer Sales on Antitrust Grounds

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson from Mississippi asked Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday to stop the government from selling thousands of FEMA trailers that were intended to house refugees from the 2005 Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and argued the sale raised antitrust concerns.

Some of the units posed health risks because they were contaminated with formaldehyde, and were never distributed, Thompson said. The industry expects that it will sell 203,500 trailers this year, he said, and the government has around 103,000 to get rid of. “We find it difficult to believe that dumping over 100,000 used [units]…will not create a substantial and negative effect on the price and supply of trailers,” he said.

Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller told the Associated Press that Holder’s office would respond to Thompson’s letter.

Read the letter here, and the Associated Press story here.

Varney Defends Ticketmaster Decision at SXSW

Executives from the now-combined ticketing and concert promotion behemoth Live Nation Entertainment didn’t show up at a popular music and tech festival in Austin this week.  But Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Christine Varney was on hand yesterday at the South by Southwest conference, known as SXSW, to defend her decision to let the deal go through — with conditions.

Varney was “on the defensive” with a “contentious” audience skeptical of the merger, the L.A. Times said. “I know it’s not a satisfying answer,” she said, according to the paper’s music blog. “We are constrained by the law. The overlap that we found was in ticketing. That’s why the remedy rests in ticketing.”

The paper also reported that Varney urged the audience to tell the Justice Department if the behavioral remedies were working. “We’re talking to bands, managers, promoters, a lot of people, understanding how our proposed consent decree is working, not working,” Varney said. “But the only way we know if it’s working is to hear from you.”

Read that story here.

‘Kabletown’ Swallows NBC

The NBC sitcom 30 Rock continued its spoof on Comcast Corp.’s bid to takeover NBC Universal on Thursday, with a fictional Philadelphia-based company called “Kabletown” as a stand-in for Comcast. Last week’s episode debuted the cable giant as a “fine and generous company.” This Thursday night’s episode wasn’t quite as charitable. Kabletown, it turned out, gets 91 percent of its profits from pay-per-view pornography and was buying NBC as a tax write-off.

Watch the episode here.

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Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

After hearing from seed manufacturers and hog producers in Ankeny, Iowa, last week, Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney will meet with another agricultural group seeking her ear: New York’s dairy farmers.

According to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the antitrust chief will be traveling to upstate New York later this month to talk about anti-competitive conduct in the dairy industry.

The session, slated for March 29 at Genesee Community College in Batavia, is separate from a series of workshops the Justice Department and USDA are conducting this year on concentration in poultry, dairy, livestock and other agricultural markets.

Varney also traveled to Vermont last September at the behest of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to speak with dairy farmers about the low price of milk.

Dairy farmers and other agricultural producers have complained that the prices they are paid have decreased more than retail prices for the products.

Varney is making the trip at Schumer’s request, according to WICZ, a Binghamton, N.Y., television station. “For too long farmers have been receiving rock-bottom prices for their product, while prices have not dropped commensurately for consumers at the stores,” Schumer said. “It just doesn’t add up.”

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

Proponents and critics of Comcast Corporation’s proposed plan to take a majority stake in NBC Universal gathered for the last of four scheduled hearings on Capitol Hill Thursday, retreading themes largely visited in sessions last month.

In a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts reiterated the company’s commitments to add new independent cable channels to its roster and give other cable providers access to NBC’s programming. The goal of the joint venture with General Electric, he said, was to invest in and improve the fourth-ranked NBC.

“My principle motivation is to make a bet that we are going to see a rebound,” Roberts said. “You don’t buy the number four network and want to do harm. GE has chosen us to partner with because they think we will be more committed to wanting to see more innovation and investment.”

Opponents of the merger, including the Consumer Federation of America’s Mark Cooper and Colleen Abdoulah, chief executive at the cable operator Wow!,  both of whom testified at previous hearings, said they worried about the market power the combined entity would have.

“We’re not here to ask for favors, we’re here as a buyer of content,” Abdoulah said. After the merger, “we will pay more for the content and have no other choice but to pass that on to consumers.”

The regulators overseeing the reviews of the deal, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski and Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney, who heads the Antitrust Division, joined the hearing for a separate opening panel.

Lawmakers did not urge regulators to reject the deal, but did express some concern about the structure of the media and cable markets.

“These are services that are vital to our democracy. They shape the way we communicate. They shape the way we share news and information,” Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.V.), who chairs the Senate panel, said in an opening statement. “When consolidation occurs in these markets, we need to pay attention.”

Legislators again asked about access to programming online, an issue Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) who heads the antitrust subcommittee raised in a previous hearing. Kohl wrote to NBC last month and asked why the network put some Olympics content behind a pay wall online that required a cable subscription.

A new addition to the hearing lineup, president of the Writers Guild of America, West John Wells, also said the greatest danger of the merger might be its effect on the online video market. “Comcast may be tempted to favor its content,” he said.

Both Varney and Genachowski said their agencies were examining what role online video played in injecting competition into the market. Video on the internet was still “in the very early chapters,” Genachowski said.

Both officials, who were limited from saying much about the deal due to the confidential nature of the review process, instead pointed to previous actions to outline their approach.

When Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) suggested the DOJ had not been very aggressive in going after anti-competitive mergers, Varney said: “I can assure you there is no rubber stamp at the Department of Justice.”

She drew on the examples of the merger between Ticketmaster and Live Nation, which won approval after the companies agreed to sell some assets and adhere to a set of rules, and a proposed purchase that Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan dropped this week after the agency threatened to sue.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), on the other hand, suggested the agencies might be too aggressive. “I hope they avoid significant conditions that force the government to constantly police the market,” said the committee’s ranking member.

In response to questions from Hutchinson about whether the agencies are “creative” with issues outside of their expertise, Genachowski said that “any decision we make needs to be tied to the issues that arise in that transaction.”

The FCC put out a request for public comments on the Comcast transaction last week, and the DOJ has moved into its extended review of the deal.

Previous similar mergers have not lasted, a topic both Roberts and lawmakers raised in the hearing. News Corp. sold its stake in DirectTV in 2008, and Time Warner spun off its cable operations, Time Warner Cable, last year.

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

The people — 145 of them, anyway — have spoken.

B. Todd Jones (Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi)

Main Justice polled readers last month on their choice for a new Deputy Attorney General. The survey registered a decisive, er, 14-vote victory for Minnesota’s B. Todd Jones, a repeat U.S. Attorney and chairman of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee of U.S. Attorneys.

Jones first served as U.S. Attorney in Minnesota from 1998 to 2001. He sat out the Bush administration, as a partner at Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi in Minneapolis specializing in complex business litigation and corporate criminal defense.

Jones was confirmed again as U.S. Attorney in August, and shortly thereafter Attorney General Eric Holder tapped him to chair the AGAC, a powerful policy body that meets with top department officials about once every six weeks.

Last month, Acting Deputy Attorney General Gary Grindler replaced David Ogden, who left over his differences with the Attorney General.

For more on the other candidates, read our earlier post.

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

(UPI Photo/Alexis C. Glenn)

The Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust, Christine Varney, invited Politico’s Click to a Sunday dinner party she hosted with her husband, Tom Graham.

As the antitrust chief whipped up a spread of beet mousse, chestnut soup, lamb, and tarte tatin, she said cooking was like campaigning: “Everything’s under control — until it’s not.”

Her husband cooks the weekday meals, Varney told Politico, while she takes the lead on weekend feasts.

Read the whole story, and see pictures, here.

Friday, February 26th, 2010

In an interview with Bloomberg News on Friday, Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney endorsed a House bill that would repeal the antitrust exemption that health insurers enjoy, and said it could inject competition into the insurance industry.

“Whenever you have anybody with an enormous amount of market share, whether it’s 70 percent, 80 percent, 90 percent of the product sales in a particular market, that tells us that market is probably not competitive,” Varney told Bloomberg.

Varney testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last October about repealing the 1945 McCarran-Ferguson law that exempts insurance companies from some federal antitrust scrutiny, but stopped short of endorsing any legislation then.

Now she told Bloomberg that the bill would “hopefully… introduce more competition.”

“Anytime an industry or a sector of the economy enjoys immunity from a law, they behave differently than if they have to compete,” she said.

The House on Wednesday passed legislation to repeal the exemption for health insurers, but the matter faces an uncertain future in the Senate. The bill was previously part of broader health overhaul package in Congress, but House leaders targeted the antitrust exemption for stand-alone treatment once reform efforts stalled.

In the Bloomberg interview, Varney rated her performance and told Bloomberg she was somewhat more aggressive than antitrust regulators in the Bush administration, grading herself at a “four or five” if the previous Justice Department was a “two or three.”

(Here is our interview with her predecessor, Tom Barnett, who said antitrust enforcement has changed much with the new administration.)

When Varney took over at the Antitrust Division last year, she gave several speeches announcing that she would step up antitrust scrutiny and hinted that she would challenge more conduct than the previous administration had.

But in the first big test for Obama’s Justice Department, the merger between ticket giant Ticketmaster and concert promoter Live Nation, Varney approved the deal last month with some conditions. The approval prompted some critics to say that her bark might be worse than her bite. Responding to that charge, Varney told Bloomberg:

“Having a big bark is not a bad thing,” she said. “When I was growing up, the people across the street had this big huge German Shepherd named Missy and nobody went on Missy’s lawn because of her bark. I can’t tell you whether or not Missy would have ever bit anyone, but she certainly deterred some trespassing.”

Read the whole interview here.