Monday, June 11, 2007

Friends in High Places

Microsoft Finds Legal Defender in Justice Dept.

Nearly a decade after the government began its landmark effort to break up Microsoft, the Bush administration has sharply changed course by repeatedly defending the company both in the United States and abroad against accusations of anticompetitive conduct, including the recent rejection of a complaint by Google.
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In the most striking recent example of the policy shift, the top antitrust official at the Justice Department last month urged state prosecutors to reject a confidential antitrust complaint filed by Google that is tied to a consent decree that monitors Microsoft's behavior.
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The official, Thomas O. Barnett, an assistant attorney general, had until 2004 been a top antitrust partner at the law firm that has represented Microsoft in several antitrust disputes. At the firm, Justice Department officials said, he never worked on Microsoft matters. Still, for more than a year after arriving at the department, he removed himself from the case because of conflict of interest issues. Ethics lawyers ultimately cleared his involvement.

Mr. Barnett's memo dismissing Google's claims, sent to state attorneys general around the nation, alarmed many of them, they and other lawyers from five states said. Some state officials said they believed that Google's complaint had merit. They also said that they could not recall receiving a request by any head of the Justice Department's antitrust division to drop any inquiry.
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State officials said that Mr. Barnett's memo rejected the Google complaint, repeating legal arguments made by Microsoft.
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The administration has supported Microsoft in other antitrust skirmishes as well.

Last year, for instance, the United States delegation to the European Union complained to European regulators that Microsoft had been denied access to evidence it needed to defend itself in an investigation there into possible anticompetitive conduct. The United States delegation is led by Ambassador C. Boyden Gray, who had worked for Microsoft as a lawyer and lobbyist.
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A big factor has been the Bush administration's hands-off approach to business regulation. For its part, Microsoft, which spent more than $55 million on lobbying activities in Washington from 2000 to 2006 and substantially more on lawyers, has become a more effective lobbying organization.
Geebus, talk about a System of a Down!