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Top Antitrust Official Is Said to Recuse Himself From Google Inquiry

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WASHINGTON — Makan Delrahim, the head of the antitrust division at the Department of Justice, has recused himself from investigating Google, even as the agency’s examination of the largest tech companies ramps up.

Mr. Delrahim, 50, recently removed himself from looking into allegations of anticompetitive practices at Google because of a potential conflict of interest related to his past work for the internet search company, two people with knowledge of the decision said.

In 2007, Mr. Delrahim, who was in private law practice at the time, had a contract to lobby for Google’s acquisition of the ad-technology company DoubleClick, according to the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the details are confidential.

“As the technology review progressed, Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim revisited potential conflicts with previous work with the Department of Justice’s ethics office,” said a Justice Department spokesman. “He and the ethics office have decided that he should now recuse himself from a matter within the tech review in an abundance of caution.”

Mr. Delrahim is recusing himself as the Justice Department has embarked on the most high-profile antitrust investigations of technology companies in years. The agency opened investigations into Google, Amazon and Facebook last summer as questions over the dominance of the tech giants increased. The Justice Department has since called in dozens of rivals across media, retail and tech to gather evidence of anticompetitive business practices by the tech companies.

The Federal Trade Commission and dozens of state attorneys general have also started antitrust investigations into Facebook, Amazon and Google. A congressional committee has also opened a similar investigation into big tech companies.

It was unclear why Mr. Delrahim’s recusal was taking place now, given that the Justice Department’s investigation into Google has been in process for months.

But he has faced increased criticism for potential conflicts of interest. Last year, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, said Mr. Delrahim should recuse himself from tech investigations because of his history of consulting for Google and Apple while he was an attorney last decade.

Calling his lobbying work for Google and Apple “extensive and lucrative,” Ms. Warren said in a letter to Mr. Delrahim last June that “any reasonable person would surely question your impartiality in antitrust matters involving Google.”

In December, text messages between Mr. Delrahim and the top executives involved in a blockbuster wireless merger of T-Mobile and Sprint emerged in court after state attorneys general had challenged the deal. In the text messages, Mr. Delrahim appeared to facilitate negotiations between the companies and to help the deal get approved by the Federal Communications Commission.

Mr. Delrahim’s recusal raises questions about the Justice Department’s oversight of the Google investigation. In a statement, the agency said Ryan Shores, an associate deputy attorney general, and Alex Okuliar, a deputy assistant attorney general who joined the Justice Department last week, would oversee the tech review.

The tech investigations have drawn unusual interest from Attorney General William P. Barr and Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen. Mr. Barr, a former official for Verizon, and Mr. Rosen, a former antitrust attorney, have given public speeches on their concerns about the power of big tech firms and their interest in examining whether the companies have broken antitrust laws.

Mr. Delrahim has been a divisive figure in antitrust circles. He opposed the merger of AT&T with Time Warner in November 2017 but the deal eventually went ahead. Months later, he approved the merger of T-Mobile and Sprint.

Katie Benner contributed reporting.

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