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Committee to Review Transfer of Media Antitrust Authority to Justice

By Published on .

WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- The chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee is demanding to see details of the meetings between Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department that created the agreement to cede antitrust oversight in media deals to Justice.

Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., today has informed FTC Chairman Timothy Muris and Attorney General John Ashcroft that his committee will conduct a formal review into last week's decision that limits the FTC's enforcement over "key industries" and assigns the Justice Department exclusive enforcement over broadcast and print media companies.

Details of meetings
Sen. Hollings is

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apparently irate that the move was made without congressional approval. He has asked Messers. Muris and Ashcroft to provide him with the list of meetings that were held to craft the agreement; a list of participants, including the "names and identities of any and all outside parties and consultants that provided recommendations and advice"; and any e-mails or correspondence with outside parties.

In his letter to Mr. Muris, the senator noted that while industry lobbyists had a say in the agreement, public interest groups were not apparently consulted.

Conflict of interest?
"These actions not only raise questions about possible conflicts of interests," Sen. Hollings wrote, "but clearly were inappropriate given the ramifications of the agreement regarding anti-trust policy."

At the heart of the arguement is Sen. Holling's contention that the switch in antitrust oversight will "eliminate important advantages" of having an independent and bipartisan FTC playing a role in enforcement. The agreement, he wrote, gives the Justice Department, which is controlled by the White House, "complete oversight and control of all major public information distribution systems and media content producers."

A spokeswoman for Mr. Muris said the chairman would "respond expeditiously to the request and looks forward to the merits of public discussion of this agreement."

Gina Talamona, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said the department "will work with the Commerce Committee in responding to the Senator's inquiry regarding the [agreement] and the process by which it was reached."

Sen. Hollings, who also chairs the appropriations committee panel that oversees budget requests from the FTC and Justice Department, has been vocal about Congress having a say in the agreement. He has also been upset as to how the switch was crafted.

Delay, then announcement
Seven weeks ago Mr. Muris and Charles James, assistant secretary for antitrust for the Justice Department, suddenly called off plans to announce the agreement when it became apparent no one had informed Sen. Hollings. Then last week the agreement was formally announced, again without informing Sen. Hollings, even as officials of the two federal agencies were discussing concerns with committee staff.

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