Biden eyes ex-Obama staff to tackle Big Tech and other antitrust issues

Biden (above) has two front-runners for the top antitrust job at the US Department of Justice, sources say.
Biden (above) has two front-runners for the top antitrust job at the US Department of Justice, sources say.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Two former Obama administration officials have emerged as front-runners for the top antitrust job at the US Department of Justice under the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden, according to two sources with knowledge of the matter.

One of the picks is Renata Hesse, who has had several stints at the Justice Department since 2002 and most recently served as the acting assistant attorney-general from mid-2016 to January 2017.

She also has held private sector roles and advised on matters involving companies such as Amazon.com and Alphabet's Google.

More notably, Hesse advised Amazon on its more than US$13 billion acquisition of grocery chain Whole Foods, according to her bio on the website of New York law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, where she is currently a partner.

Her role could pose conflict of interest issues as the Justice Department pursues its widely-followed case against Google, the sources said. The Justice Department sued Google on Oct 20, accusing the US$1 trillion (S$1.3 trillion) company of dominating search and advertising.

The other front-runner is Juan Arteaga, who has also worked for the Justice Department under President Barack Obama between 2013 to 2017 and served as the deputy assistant attorney-general for civil enforcement, according to the sources, who did not wish to be named.

Arteaga also has held private sector roles and advised companies such as JP Morgan Chase & Co and AT&T.

Other contenders under consideration include Jonathan Kanter, who co-chaired the antitrust department at the law firm Paul Weiss and now runs his own firm, the sources said.

He is a prominent Big Tech and Google critic. Many progressive groups favour Kanter's appointment as they push for more aggressive antitrust enforcement.

To be sure, the names reflect the thinking of the Biden transition so far and could change as the vetting process moves forward, the sources said.

The Biden transition team did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Antitrust enforcement has emerged as an issue the Biden transition team has been paying attention to. For example, a third source said the transition is prioritising getting a landing team in to start working on issues and that Arteaga could be a good fit.

Also, on Nov 18, the Biden transition's agency review team for the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice held a meeting with outside progressive and moderate groups to discuss antitrust policy priorities, according to three separate sources.

Some of the broad priorities discussed on the call included having more "aggressive" antitrust enforcers.

"Bring cases even if you're going to lose," said one source, describing the way this point was made in the meeting.

Other topics discussed during the session included reversing merger guidelines, retrospective scrutiny of mergers, revamping antiquated competition laws and offering more funds for federal enforcement agencies such as the FTC, the sources said.