The U.S. Federal Trade Commission hired a top Washington litigator to run its antitrust investigation of Google Inc. (GOOG:US), signaling the agency may be preparing a lawsuit against the world’s largest search engine.
The FTC is bringing in Beth Wilkinson, a partner with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, who is known for winning the death sentence against Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and litigating for companies including Pfizer Inc. (PFE:US) and Philip Morris International Inc. (PM:US) General counsel of Fannie Mae (FNMA:US) from 2006 to 2008, Wilkinson, 49, has never lost a case.
“Historically, the FTC and the Justice Department bring in outside counsel only in the most high-profile and complicated cases, and only when they’re really serious about proceeding,” said Samuel Miller, senior counsel with Sidley Austin LLP in San Francisco, who was tapped to lead the department’s antitrust case against Microsoft Corp. in 1994.
Google disclosed in June that the FTC had opened a broad antitrust investigation of its business practices. The FTC is focusing on whether Google unfairly ranks search results to favor its own businesses and increased advertising rates for competitors, people familiar with the probe told Bloomberg News at the time.
The agency also is examining whether the Mountain View, California-based company is using its control of the Android mobile operating system to discourage smartphone makers from using rivals’ applications, and whether search results that include the new Google+ social-networking service violate antitrust laws, the people said.
“We are delighted to have someone of her caliber helping us on such an important matter,” said Rich Feinstein, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition.
He said no conclusion has been reached on whether to bring a lawsuit and no decision is “imminent.” He declined to comment further on the investigation.
Google spokeswoman Mistique Cano declined to comment on Wilkinson’s hiring.
The FTC is hiring Wilkinson, who will be paid a $155,000 annual salary for the project, as the European Commission is poised to decide on its own antitrust investigation of Google. European Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said April 23 that a decision is expected soon.
Other outside litigators brought in by antitrust enforcers include David Boies, chairman of Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP, who was hired to lead the Justice Department’s second antitrust case against Microsoft in 1998.
Sandy Litvack, a lawyer with Hogan Lovells in Washington and a former head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, was hired by the department in 2008 to lead its review of a proposed agreement between Google and Yahoo! Inc. The joint venture was dropped after the department threatened a lawsuit to block it.
Most recently, the Justice Department hired Los Angeles- based lawyer Glenn Pomerantz, a partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, to bolster the trial team working on the lawsuit against AT&T Inc.’s acquisition of T-Mobile USA Inc. -- a deal the companies dropped in December.
“If you’ve got a big-time litigator, you must at least be considering bringing a serious case,” said Gary Reback, an antitrust lawyer at Carr & Ferrell LLP in Menlo Park, California, who represents shopping websites including ShopCity.com, that have complained to the FTC and the European Commission about Google’s business practices.
Wilkinson, a former U.S. Army captain, has the skills to put the complex issues in the case in a way that people can understand, Reback said.
“For a case that involves technology and antitrust, it’s important to have someone who can take it out of legalese and have it make sense,” Reback said.
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