A quirk in the Federal Trade Commission rules is giving the government a second chance to hit Microsoft Corp. with an antitrust case. Justice and the FTC split up cases, and if one agency fails to act, that's normally the end of the matter. But a 2-2 split on the FTC left the commission unable to either pursue or dismiss the complaint. The decision to refer the case to Justice then fell to an obscure bureaucrat in the FTC Bureau of Competition, who is designated as the agency's liaison with Justice. The commissioners could have voted to prevent the action--but the motion would have failed en the same 2-2 tie that has kept the case in legal limbo for months.
Before the office referred the civil case, Mary Lou Steptoe, who heads the Bureau of Competition, told commissioners she would send thousands of pages of documents to Justice within 24 hours unless told to do otherwise. Commissioner Deborah K. Owen, who opposed bringing a case against Microsoft, called for a vote to block the referral. But with FTC members seemingly weary of the issue, no one would even second the motion. The future of the case is now in the hands of Assistant Attorney General Anne Bingaman, who has so far given no indication of her intentions.