A Merger Too Far, Says Former Antitrust Chief

"Off the wall."

That's the way Anne Bingaman describes the possible merger of telecom powerhouses AT&T and SBC Communications - the No. 1 long-distance carrier and the nation's biggest provider of local-service.

Ms. Bingaman, head of the antitrust division at the Department of Justice until Oct. 18, says such a merger, reportedly under discussion would "stifle competition to a tremendous degree."

"But I'm sure some smart lawyers are working on fancy theories to support it."

Bingaman now works for LCI International in Maclean, Va., an AT&T competitor and the nation's sixth largest long-distance company. She manages LCI's move into local phone service. While a combined AT&T/SBC might hurt LCI, a company spokeswoman says the impact at this point is unclear.

Bingaman objects to a merger because, she says, it would stop AT&T from competing for local service in states served by SBC, including Texas and California. And vice versa: SBC would not be competing with AT&T for long-distance business.

At the Justice Department, Bingaman ran what one law professor described as "an activist group."

The central purpose of antitrust laws, she argues, is to promote the free, open, and competitive markets that "stimulate innovation, promote prosperity, and contribute to the international success of ... US business."

In that regard, US antitrust officials now work closely with Canadian and European authorities on "world cartel cases."

Most mergers and acquisitions are not anticompetitive, Bingaman says, and "pass muster" - the premerger review process instituted in 1974.

The government's antitrust activities, she notes, have more than paid for themselves through fines imposed on violators.

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