WASHINGTON - Christine Varney, the top antitrust official in the U.S. Justice Department, is stepping down, the department said on Wednesday.
She will join elite law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore, the firm said in an internal memo on Wednesday. She will be leaving the Justice Department as of August 5, the department said.
Varney's decision comes as the division is looking at AT&T Inc's $39 billion plan to buy T-Mobile USA. The deal, which requires Federal Communications Commission and Justice Department approval, would concentrate 80 percent of U.S. wireless contract customers in just two companies -- AT&T/T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless.
There was no immediate word on a successor, but none of the antitrust experts interviewed expected Varney's successor to be someone whose decision making would be sharply different.
"The policies of the division are less influenced by who occupies that chair than some people might think, and more by who is doing the picking. Since the same individuals may be picking the successor, I do not anticipate that there will be a major shift," said Stephen Axinn, of law firm Axinn Veltrop and Harkrider LLP.
Varney was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009 to beef up antitrust enforcement, which critics saw as too quick to approve mergers under President George W. Bush.
But Varney did not turn out to be the hard-nosed enforcer many had hoped.
Her division's willingness to agree to remedies such as requiring a firewall to protect rivals' key data in the Ticketmaster case was a departure from an earlier preference for divestitures in cases when a merger would have led to monopoly.
But Varney did step in and threaten to sue NASDAQ OMX Group and IntercontinentalExchange Inc if they proceeded with a bid to buy NYSE Euronext. The deal was scuttled in May.
During her two years on the job, Varney approved Comcast's acquisition of a 51 percent stake in NBC Universal from General Electric Co, creating a $30 billion business that includes broadcast, cable networks, movie studios and theme parks. The mammoth deal included the condition that Comcast give up day-to-day control of video website Hulu.
The Justice Department under Varney also extended controversial approvals of Ticketmaster's buy of Live Nation in 2010 and Google's buy of ticketing software company ITA in April.
"In each case, the remedy is impossible to evaluate at this point in time," said Bert Foer, head of the American Antitrust Institute and a skeptic of behavioral remedies.
Foer, however, gave Varney credit for reinvigorating the agency and pressing on with criminal enforcement such as price fixing cases that tend not to change from administration to administration. "I would probably give her about a B-minus grade," he said.
Prior to becoming assistant attorney general for the Antitrust Division, Varney was at Hogan & Hartson, now Hogan Lovells. She was previously a commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission.
Cravath, a law firm with about 500 attorneys, has a renowned antitrust practice. It represented United Airlines in its merger with Continental, which was completed in October. The firm also has represented IBM and Time Warner Cable for years. The law firm's average profits per partner in 2010 were $3.2 million, according to The American Lawyer. Gross revenue was $591 million.
(Reporting by Diane Bartz, Alison Frankel, Leigh Jones, Erin Geiger Smith and Karey Wutkowski; Editing by Eddie Evans, Phil Berlowitz)
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