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By Liz Crampton
The Justice Department’s antitrust chief doesn’t need to recuse himself from reviewing the proposed AT&T Inc. and Time Warner Inc. merger due to past comments, the department’s ethics office concluded.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division Makan Delrahim should step aside because he said in a 2016 interview that the merger didn’t appear to pose a “major antitrust problem” as it doesn’t involve direct competitors. Delrahim’s comments, made in a Canadian TV interview prior to his nomination, “implies an underappreciation of the impact of a merger of that size on the media market,” Warren wrote in an Oct. 12 letter to the Justice Department.
“The Department’s career ethics officials have reviewed the full interview and advised that there is no legal obligation requiring recusal under the ethics laws or rules,” Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd wrote in a Nov. 6 letter to Warren obtained by Bloomberg Law. Recusals made by top officials at the antitrust agencies are typically made when a merger up for review or a conduct investigation involves a former client.
The Justice Department’s response to Warren comes amid reports the department has discovered potential competitive issues with the merger and floated requiring the companies to divest either DirectTV, the satellite provider, or Turner Broadcasting, which includes CNN, TNT and TBS, according to Bloomberg News.
Potentially requiring the sale of CNN raised renewed concerns about the role the White House might be playing in the merger investigation. President Donald Trump has been outspoken about what he sees as unfair coverage from CNN and threatened to block the deal before taking office.
In the letter, the Justice Department detailed the “full context” of Delrahim’s October 2016 interview, held after the deal was announced. At the time, Delrahim said “the review would be based on the law and the facts, and that, ‘if the Division determined the transaction met the legal standard for a challenge under the antitrust laws, it ‘will bring a lawsuit.’ ”
“AAG Delrahim specifically clarified that ‘that’s not to say that there aren’t going to be some concerns and antitrust issues of one distributor owning various content, and it might somehow impact other distributors,’ ” it said.
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