The Talent

January 28, 2009 5:30 AM

Former Antitrust Chief Rejoins Covington

Posted by Brian Baxter

Covington & Burling has told The Am Law Daily that Thomas Barnett, former head of the Justice Department's antitrust division, will return to the firm next week to head its global antitrust and competition practice.

Barnett led the antitrust division for three years, working on matters like Delta's successful merger with Northwest and Google's ill-fated joint advertising agreement with Yahoo. Barnett resigned in mid-November and says that he spent the next two months relaxing with family and visiting friends. But next week it will be back to the exciting world of antitrust and competition law.

"It's a unique time to think about what it is I want to do and where I want to do it," says Barnett by phone from the Orlando airport, where his flight back to Washington, D.C., was delayed. He had just taken his children on a trip to Disney World. "But Covington really was the best place for me to go, with its international scope and breadth of expertise."

It helps that Barnett has a history with the firm. He first joined Covington in 1990 after completing a clerkship with the late Harrison Winter, former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond. Barnett spent 14 years at the firm, rising to become one of several vice chairs in its antitrust group.

But the allure of government service was irresistible and in April 2004 Barnett left Covington to become deputy assistant attorney general for antitrust. He became acting assistant attorney general in June 2005 and was confirmed by the Senate to permanently fill the role in February 2006.

"Working at the DOJ and in the antitrust division was certainly the highlight of my career," Barnett says. "In terms of things accomplished, first on the list would be criminal cartel enforcement, which was at an historic high. There was an increased amount of cooperation and sophistication of cartel enforcement with other global competition agencies around the world."

Under Barnett's watch, the antitrust division secured more than $2 billion in criminal fines against 50 corporations and 91 individuals. That includes one of the largest antitrust settlements in U.S. history, which Barnett's division announced in June when it extracted $504 million from four international airlines to settle air cargo price-fixing charges. (The investigation also netted the guilty plea of the highest-ranking U.S. executive of Qantas Airways.)

Barnett's division also was active on the competition advocacy front, filing 14 amicus briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court on issues that the Court ultimately adopted.

Barnett's merger program oversaw several large-scale industry mergers, including Delta-Northwest, which the agency approved in October 2008, and the union of rival satellite radio stations XM and Sirius, which gained approval last March. Other cases like Verizon Wireless's $28 billion bid for Alltel gained approval on the condition that divestitures be made to remove anticompetitive portions of the transactions.

Barnett says he is now looking forward to helping companies understand the opportunities they face and how to achieve compliance with challenging new antitrust laws.

A number of firms sought out Barnett's services, though he declines to name them. He says he did not use the services of a recruiter when talking with Covington or any of the other firms.

"I had a fairly good feel of the firms that were engaged in a competition practice and the ones that would be most appealing, so I engaged with them directly and handled it directly," Barnett says. "And ultimately I was satisfied with the result."

Covington had gross revenues of $467 million and profits per equity partner of $1.175 million in 2007.

Hogan & Hartson partner Christine Varney was nominated by President Barack Obama last week to succeed Barnett as head of the antitrust division.

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