FTC noms feeling the heat

Bush administration's choice sparks controversy

WASHINGTON — Motion Picture Assn. of America veep Jon Leibowitz’s nomination to the Federal Trade Commission caught more heat Tuesday as a second watchdog group objected to his ties to the studios and big media.

But Leibowitz’s nomination has sparked far less controversy than the Bush’s administration’s choice to chair the FTC: Deborah Majoras.

Majoras, a lawyer at the Jones Day law firm, which represents such media congloms as General Electric, DirecTV and Time Warner, has seen her nomination put on hold by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

Wyden’s concerns are not about her media connections, but rather about Majoras’ unwillingness to hold oil companies accountable for skyrocketing gas prices.

Commerce panel plans to vote and will likely easily approve both nominations Thursday. But the full Senate will not decide the fate of the pair until September, when a final vote is expected.

So far, Leibowitz has strong bipartisan support and far fewer hurdles to overcome than Majoras, although a few members of Washington’s watchdog community have expressed limited criticism of his nomination.

Last week the Center for Digital Democracy voiced concern about the years Leibowitz has spent at the MPAA repping the business interests of the studios and their media-giant parents such as Viacom and News Corp.

Common Cause echoed the criticism in a letter sent to every member of the Senate Commerce Committee Tuesday. Org prexy Chellie Pingree expressed “serious reservations” about Leibowitz.

Pingree also questioned Majoras’ willingness to block mergers of media companies, considering her background.

Specifically, Pingree highlighted ties to a “roster of media giants” that Majoras’ law firm represents.

Pingree also criticized Majoras for helping “advance” a proposal in 2002 that would have ceded the FTC’s power to monitor media mergers to the Justice Dept. when she was deputy assistant attorney general. At the time, consumer groups and Democrats in Congress argued that the plan would have reduced the amount of scrutiny media mergers received by handing the responsibility over to the DOJ, an executive agency that has less expertise on media matters and is more susceptible to the influence of the White House.

Common Cause expressed similar reservations about Leibowitz based on the three years he spent as the MPAA’s veep for congressional affairs.

“This does not seem the best background for a consumer advocate who will understand Americans’ growing opposition to media concentration,” she wrote.

Pingree wondered how effective Leibowitz could be at the FTC if he is forced to recuse himself on media issues because of his ties to the MPAA.

“And if he does not recuse himself, will he be able to shed the biases of a former MPAA lobbyist?” she asked.

Leibowitz and the MPAA declined to comment on Pingree’s letter, but other Democratic Senate staffers and consumer advocates spoke out in favor of his nomination.

Before Leibowitz’s stint at the MPAA, he served 13 years as a Democratic staffer on the Senate Judiciary Committee, eventually working as the chief counsel for the antitrust subcommittee.

Pam Gilbert, a longtime consumer advocate, has known Leibowitz for 20 years since the two attended law school at NYU. Gilbert served on the Consumer Products Safety Commission during the Clinton administration and has worked at consumer watchdog group Congress Watch, Public Citizen’s lobbying arm.

When dealing with media mergers during his Senate tenure, Gilbert said, Leibowitz was extremely tough but fair. While at the MPAA, he was not involved in any media mergers.

“I think Jon would make a fabulous FTC commissioner,” she said. “He was an exemplary Senate staffer and was very skeptical. He looked at antitrust and media mergers of big companies with a skeptical eye.”

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