A U.S. district court judge is questioning U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) approvals of two major telecommunications mergers since late 2005, saying he has “doubts” that the deals were in the public interest.
Judge Emmet Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia suggested Wednesday that he wants to call new witnesses to examine October agreements approved by the DoJ in SBC Communication’s acquisition of AT&T and in Verizon Communication’s acquisition of MCI.
Sullivan said he has concerns about the DoJ agreements, which required SBC and Verizon to divest some fiber-optic lines in areas where there was little competition for telephone service. But he also said he doesn’t want to completely reopen the settlements.
Sullivan, in a hearing to review the two merger agreements, said changes in the antitrust Tunney Act made by the U.S. Congress in 2004 require him to take a comprehensive look at the two mergers. The SBC/AT&T merger closed in November, with the new company renamed AT&T, while the Verizon/MCI merger closed in January.
Lawyers for AT&T and the DoJ called on Sullivan to limit the scope of his investigation by not calling new witnesses. The DoJ spent thousands of hours reviewing the mergers, and bringing in new witnesses could significantly stretch out the proceeding and create trade-secret concerns for the companies, said Claude Scott, a DoJ lawyer.
It’s not the judge’s role to restructure the merger settlements, Scott added. “The question here is not whether this is the best deal,” he said. “But is this a reasonable approach?”
Sullivan balked at the complaint that bringing in witnesses would drag out the proceeding. “You had a great opportunity to conduct your business,” he told Scott. “I must have a fair opportunity to conduct mine.”
AT&T lawyer Wilma Lewis argued there are three companies ready to purchase the telephone and data lines AT&T would be required to sell off in the settlement. They want to “get out there and compete,” she said.
Lewis questioned why Sullivan needed to call witnesses, saying the court records were substantial. “What additional information is missing?” she said. “It’s our position the current record addresses all the information the court needs.”
-Grant Gross, IDG News Service (Washington Bureau)
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