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Presidential nominee Thomas O. Barnett, hoping to be the Department of Justice’s top antitrust regulator, promised senators that he would work to improve the merger review process during his confirmation hearing Thursday. He also pledged to keep a close eye on telecommunication and media mergers, as well as collusion in the gasoline industry. When questioned by Sen. Mike Dewine, R-Ohio, Barnett said that merging firms do face a regulatory burden during investigation, but said “There have been steps taken, and there have been some initiatives to more closely monitor investigations at a managerial level.” He added, “My impression is that we have made progress.” He pledged that if confirmed, the division would “continue to strive for better practice” in merger reviews. Barnett, currently the acting Assistant Attorney General, Antitrust, was a Deputy of former Assistant Attorney General Hew Pate, who stepped down this summer. He promised Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., that he would continue Pate’s approach to antitrust enforcement, with anti-cartel enforcement and an ongoing focus on merger review being his top priorities. He said he could not comment on the pending investigations of telecom mergers, but assured the Senate Judiciary Committee that the agency is investing substantial resources into the Verizon-MCI and SBC-AT&T mergers. Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., told Barnett that media mergers threaten the marketplace of ideas, and suggested there should be some “special, more exacting review” for media companies that might decrease the dissemination of news and information. But Barnett, after stressing his belief in the First Amendment, said that antitrust regulators are bound to enforce the laws as interpreted by the courts. Diversity of views are not protected by heightened antitrust laws, he explained. Barnett also was quizzed about the maze of regulation that American firms doing business globally face when attempting to acquire or merge with other companies. Barnett promised that multilateral discussions, through vehicles such as the OECD and International Competition Network, would continue, as would more narrowly focused dialogues with other nations. Efforts to streamline international merger review “will continue to be a priority,” he said. Gas prices are also a hot button for legislators, especially in the wake of the damage caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which roared through key segments of the nation’s oil and gas production and refining region. Kohl pushed Barnett for his perspective on what the Antitrust Division might do to investigate whether gas prices are excessive because of collusion on the part of petroleum companies. Barnett assured Kohl and the other senators that the antitrust division is working with a multi-agency post-hurricane task force and would stand ready to bring a case against any antitrust violators. The committee vote on Barnett is likely to take place within a week or so, with the full Senate vote to follow shortly. Copyright �2005 TDD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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