Varney's depature is unfortunate for DOJ's antitrust division

As election season fast approaches (and it may be already here), there may be some thought to trying to use the deal as a political tool to curry favor with either big business (AT&T) or big labor (Communications Workers of America), each of which has its own narrow self interest in supporting the deal.

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Appointing someone from within the Antitrust staff, someone who is familiar with the case, to take over on an acting basis, is the best way to make certain that the transaction gets the detailed, fact-based evaluation it deserves. At this point deep into the development of the case, any political interference from anywhere -- the White House, Congress or even from within the Justice Department -- should be rejected in favor of allowing the current staff to complete its work.

It's a shame Varney decided to leave before the Antitrust Division had made its call. Having said that, however, it's clear that no new head of the Antitrust Division could be named and confirmed by the time a decision will have to be made. So it is better to leave to those who have been most intimately involved.

It is important to put into context what this transaction is, and just as importantly, what it is not. It is not a contest of political influence and philanthropic affluence. AT&T has spent millions lobbying members of Congress, governors, state attorneys general, state legislators and regulators, and anyone else in public life within wallet's range to back the deal. They have spread millions of dollars to community and interest groups to back the deal. They have enticed their captive union to back the deal, despite the destruction of tens of thousands of jobs.

What this deal is, and remains, is one so flawed on the merits that it should have no chance of survival, and if the facts are evaluated in a discompassionate manner, that conclusion will be drawn. The analysis from Senate Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) was spot on: the grounds on which the deal is being defended are "without merit." He rejected AT&T's claim that only the merger would allow the company to deploy its advanced network to rural areas in six years as speculative and said there are other ways outside of the merger to accomplish the same goal.

One of Kohl's subcommittee members, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), in his own thorough analysis, also found that the merger would undermine competition and dismissed the claim of new rural deployment as "purely the product of political calculations, not financial or technical ones." Franken noted as well that AT&T had promised investors there should be "tens of thousands of net jobs cuts" in the short term as a result of the merger, negating AT&T's claim of job growth as a result of the deal.

Both senators relied on extensive research and analysis to form their conclusions, not on flimsy, easily repeated talking points supplied by the industry which are unable to stand up to the simplest of objections.

The staff of the Antitrust Division should be insulated from political influences and be left free to distill the economic and technical data and arguments, just as they would be if Varney were still in place. The White House and the Justice Department should make certain those conditions remain until through the analysis of the transaction.

Gigi B. Sohn is president and co-founder of Public Knowledge.

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