U.S. Chief Antitrust Enforcer Won’t Decide Google-ITA

Jan. 19 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Justice Department’s antitrust chief, Christine Varney, has withdrawn from deciding whether to fight Google Inc.’s $700 million purchase of ITA Software Inc. after her former law firm joined the case.

One of Varney’s deputies will decide whether to oppose the deal, approve it or place conditions on it, department spokeswoman Gina Talamona said today. ITA, which provides online airline flight and ticket information, is represented by the Washington office of Hogan Lovells, where Varney used to work.

Varney was a partner from 1998 to 2008 at what was then Hogan & Hartson LLP, which merged with London-based Lovells in May. She served as a member of the firm’s antitrust practice and started its Internet practice group, according to her profile on the Justice Department’s Web site.

Under ethics rules set out by the Obama administration, officials must refrain from interacting with former employers for two years from the time they take office.

Google, based in Mountain View, California, agreed to buy ITA in July and the Justice Department said it needed more time to review the transaction in August.

Google spokesman Adam Kovacevich reiterated that the company is cooperating with the Justice Department’s review and is “confident that this acquisition will increase competition.”

A spokeswoman for Cambridge, Massachusetts-based ITA, Cara Kretz, said that Hogan Lovells represents the company in the Google transaction. She declined to comment on Varney’s recusal. Hogan Lovells spokeswoman Noel Decker confirmed the representation, declining further comment.

Antitrust Suit

Google may face an antitrust lawsuit by the Justice Department over the planned ITA acquisition, people familiar with the situation have told Bloomberg News.

Department officials haven’t made a decision about whether to sue to block the purchase by Google, owner of the world’s most popular search engine, said the people, who requested anonymity because the agency discussions are confidential.

Varney, 55, who promised aggressive enforcement to curb anticompetitive behavior by companies, won U.S. Senate confirmation as the Justice Department’s antitrust chief in April 2009.

At an antitrust forum before her appointment, Varney described Google Inc. as a monopolist that poses more risk to online competition than Microsoft.

“For me, Microsoft is so last century,” she said at a panel discussion sponsored by the American Antitrust Institute in June 2008. Consumers will “continually see a problem -- potentially with Google” because the company “has acquired a monopoly in Internet online advertising,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sara Forden in Washington at sforden@bloomberg.net;

To contact the editor responsible for this story: David E. Rovella at drovella@bloomberg.net;