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FTC faces staff exodus, anger over Biden-appointed Big Tech foe’s leadership

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Progressives thought that they had their dream pick to steer the Federal Trade Commission last 12 months when President Biden nominated Lina Khan — but her management style is resulting in staff discontent and risks derailing her ambitions, The Post has learned. 

Khan, who made a reputation for herself as a wunderkind legal scholar and critic of Amazon prior to her Elizabeth Warren-backed confirmation as FTC Chair in June 2021, has promised to aggressively fight monopolies within the tech space and elsewhere.

Yet sources near the agency, which has a mandate to implement antitrust law and protect consumers, say that academic brilliance doesn’t necessarily translate into management ability — and that its 33-year-old leader’s inexperience has longtime staffers on the 1,100-person agency heading for the exits. 

For instance, Office of International Affairs director Randy Tritell is predicted to depart later this month after 24 years with the agency, two sources near the FTC said. Tritell had taken issue with Khan’s management style and had seen several members of his team reassigned to work on mergers and acquisitions, the sources said. 

FTC spokesperson Peter Kaplan declined to comment on Tritell’s departure but said that the agency has “needed to discover creative ways to re-allocate internal resources to assist with this intense workload.” Tritell declined to comment.

Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan has vowed to fight monopolies in tech and elsewhere. Bloomberg via Getty Images

Federal Trade CommissionThe Federal Trade Commission has a mandate to implement antitrust law and protect consumers. Bloomberg via Getty Images

Insiders worry that internal conflict and brain drain could handicap Khan’s ability to execute her agenda at a time when the FTC is already juggling several high-profile projects, including an antitrust lawsuit in search of to force Meta to unload Instagram and WhatsApp and a probe of Amazon that features scrutiny of its recent acquisition of film studio MGM which will result in an eventual lawsuit.

“They’ve put her on this position of running a very important federal agency when she has zero experience doing this sort of thing,” Eileen Harrington, a former executive director of the FTC who spent 27 years on the agency, told The Post. “She’s a rising star who’s been thrown off the deep end.” 

‘People were devastated’

Staffers gripe that Khan meets with rank-and-file employees far less continuously than previous FTC chairs — and is perceived as favoring likeminded law professors over experienced litigators and staffers who understand the nitty-gritty details of running a federal agency.

Harrington, a self-described Democrat, said she began receiving distressing calls from friends on the agency shortly after Khan took the reins last 12 months. Khan took far longer to introduce herself to staff than previous chairs and had a dismissive attitude toward profession employees, sources near the agency said. 

“People were devastated that each one they were getting from the chair’s office was criticism, refusal to have interaction,” Harrington said, adding that some called Khan “abusive” and a “tyrant.” 

“They began quitting,” she said. 

Kaplan, the FTC spokesperson, countered that Khan met with leaders of every FTC team in her first two months. Khan has also met with “the total staff of nearly every office within the agency” and given staffers opportunities to ask questions and share suggestions, in response to Kaplan.

Office of International Affairs director Randy Tritell is predicted to depart later this month, sources near the FTC said. FTC

Along with Tritell’s previously unreported plan to depart this month, other high-profile figures who’ve ditched the FTC since Khan joined include the agency’s former top economist Marta Wosinska, ex-privacy and identity protection chief Maneesha Mithal and former Bureau of Consumer Protection deputy director Daniel Kaufman. 

“Individuals with 15, 25 years of seniority are leaving,” Kaufman, who left in October after 23 years on the agency, told The Post. “That’s fairly unprecedented within the sort of number that I’m seeing.” 

In a flurry of interviews with media outlets published Thursday, Khan vowed to pursue more “big lawsuits” that “deal with what we see as a number of the biggest problems.”

Kaufman argues that Khan may have a troublesome time accomplishing her goals without longtime staff on her side. 

“The senior profession staff are the individuals who really understand the agency inside and outside and understand how one can get things done,” said Kaufman, who has since joined law firm BakerHostelter. “It’s an enormous loss for the agency.” 

Since October, at the very least 40 FTC staffers have left the agency for brand spanking new jobs, including roles at Big Tech firms including Amazon, Apple and Google, MLex reported earlier in June.  

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“Chair Khan’s aggressive enforcement approach has meant that FTC lawyers are in high demand, especially by tech corporations with a history of violating FTC orders,” Kaplan said in response to the staff defections, claiming that the staff attrition rate has been on par with the primary 12 months of the agency’s two previous chairs.

Khan’s allies argue that her overhaul is essential to reinvigorate a stagnant FTC, even when it ruffles some feathers.

“The FTC has been moribund and ineffective for years and the result has been uncontrolled corporate concentration,” said Dan Geldon, a consultant and former senior adviser to Elizabeth Warren. “Lina is acting quickly and boldly to reverse the tide and he or she should proceed doing that no matter whether it provokes some insider griping.”

The discontent isn’t limited to managers. An internal survey showed that the proportion of staffers across your entire agency who’ve a “high level of respect” for the the agency’s senior leaders nosedived from 83% in 2020 to 49% in 2021, as first reported by The Information in April. 

Following the discharge of the poll, Khan rolled back a ban on public speaking that had angered employees — and her chief of staff apologized for making “people feel like they shouldn’t have our trust and respect,” in response to the outlet. Staffers grumbled that the mea culpa got here just before the Office of Personnel Management began sending out the 2022 edition of the morale survey.

Asked concerning the 2021 survey results, Kaplan said Khan has taken “a variety of concrete steps to handle staff feedback” and that she “shares the fervour of the FTC staff for the work they do” and “has enormous respect for his or her diligence and expertise.”

Lina KhanKhan’s backers say her overhaul is essential to reinvigorate a stagnant FTC, even when it ruffles some feathers.CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Imag

‘Ever-increasing workload’ 

In May, Khan asked Congress to up the agency’s budget from $377 million to $490 million in order that she will be able to hire more staff and address its “ever-increasing workload,” citing a wave of mergers and acquisitions.

Even Khan’s harshest critics concede that the FTC deserves more funding, but additionally they are concerned that the agency isn’t using its current resources effectively. 

For instance, some profession FTC staffers bristled at a Recent Yorker profile of Khan published in November that paraphrased Khan as saying “she intends to steer the agency to decide on consequential cases, with less emphasis on the outcomes.” 

While Khan backers praise this attitude as evidence of her transformative vision, some critics have interpreted it as evidence that the chair plans to send staffers on wild goose chases that can lead to headlines but not substantive legal victories. 

Federal Trade CommissionThe proportion of FTC staffers across your entire agency who’ve a “high level of respect” for the the agency’s senior leaders nosedived from 83% in 2020 to 49% in 2021. Bloomberg via Getty Images

Harrington went even further: “If the concept is, ‘We’re going to sue you regardless that we expect we are able to’t win because that is what we expect the law ought to be’ — truthfully I feel that is an abuse of power.”

In response to Harrington’s criticism, Kaplan said: “As Chair Khan has stated, her concern is that not taking motion against illegal deals and practices sends a signal to the market that lawbreaking is suitable. Given the agency’s limited resources, she is concentrated on targeting the biggest actors which might be inflicting probably the most harm and the basis causes of harm to forestall it from recurring.”

The FTC has already claimed several victories under Khan’s leadership. 

Last December, the agency sued to dam US chipmaker Nvidia’s $40 billion acquisition of U.K. chip designer Arm, arguing that the deal would let Nivida stifle competition within the computing space. Two months later, the businesses called off the deal. American weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin also ditched plans to purchase rocket engine maker Aerodyne for $4.4 billion in February following FTC opposition. 

But critics also point to the number of recent cases brought by the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, which fell greater than half from 79 in 2020 to 31 in 2021, in response to Kaufman.

He said that the agency is on target to exceed last 12 months’s figure this 12 months, but that it’s a remarkably low bar. 

“The 2021 numbers were so low that in the event that they didn’t beat that number it will be truly shocking,” he said. 

Additional reporting by Lydia Moynihan

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