FTC taps outside counsel for Google antitrust probe

SAN FRANCISCO Fri Apr 27, 2012 4:02am IST

1 of 2. The Federal Trade Commission building is seen in Washington on March 4, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Gary Cameron

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The Federal Trade Commission has turned to a high-profile outside attorney to help run its antitrust investigation into whether Google Inc promotes search results that favor its business.

FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said on Thursday his agency had gone outside its staff because of the importance of the case, which could have implications for not just Google's growth ambitions but also consumers' use of the Internet.

Beth Wilkinson, a former federal prosecutor best known for convicting Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and now a partner with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, will start work on Monday.

Google has been accused of using its clout in the search market to stomp rivals as it moves into related Web businesses such as travel search. European regulators are also looking into similar claims.

The U.S. agency has not yet decided whether to bring a lawsuit against the world's No. 1 search engine, Leibowitz , told a group of reporters during a trip to San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

But history suggests the hiring of Wilkinson increases the chances of litigation.

The last two times that the FTC hired an outsider to direct a specific case, both in 2008, the agency did take more aggressive action. In one case, it filed an administrative complaint that scuttled an acquisition by Inova Health System Foundation, and in the other it sued Cephalon Inc over deals that delayed the introduction of generic drugs.

Wilkinson's experience also included a stint as general counsel at mortgage finance giant Fannie Mae. Leibowitz said she had strong antitrust experience as well.

Her corporate clients at Paul Weiss have ranged from Pfizer to Philip Morris.

The FTC's decision to hire an outside counsel shows that the agency anticipates a possible court fight, said Bruce McDonald, now at Jones Day law firm but a former deputy assistant attorney general with the U.S. Department of Justice.

"They've chosen a very competent experienced big-case litigator," he said.

Shares in Google closed up 0.9 percent at $615.47 on Thursday, slightly better than Nasdaq's 0.7 percent gain.

Leibowitz was visiting companies including personal payment startup Square, Firefox maker Mozilla and personal data monitoring service Reputation.com Inc as he pushes for industry support of stronger antitracking rights for consumers.

(Reporting by Joseph Menn in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Alexei Oreskovic and Diane Bartz; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Tim Dobbyn)

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