Leibowitz says FTC tenure "exhilarating but exhausting"

WASHINGTON Fri Feb 15, 2013 3:55pm EST

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairman Jon Leibowitz briefs reporters on his agency's plans for consumer protection on such issues as the consolidation of the pharmaceutical industry and mortgage fraud, as well as pending Congressional legislation, at the Reuters Financial Regulation Summit in Washington, April 27, 2009. REUTERS/Mike Theiler

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairman Jon Leibowitz briefs reporters on his agency's plans for consumer protection on such issues as the consolidation of the pharmaceutical industry and mortgage fraud, as well as pending Congressional legislation, at the Reuters Financial Regulation Summit in Washington, April 27, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Mike Theiler

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz steps down next week after a tenure that included going after drug companies paying generic firms to keep competition off the market and investigating internet company Google Inc.

"These jobs are exhilarating but exhausting," said Leibowitz, 54, who is endlessly enthusiastic about the agency he has served since 2004, first as a commissioner and, since March 2009, as chairman. He is stepping down next week, said FTC spokesman Peter Kaplan who did not give a day.

"It is sometimes hard to move the needle a little bit, but at this agency we have been very good at figuring out the areas where we can do a little bit of good for American consumers."

Allegations Intel Corp (INTC.O) and Google Inc (GOOG.O) broke antitrust law were some of the FTC's most high profile cases.

But during Leibowitz's time at the FTC it also won multimillion dollar settlements from Skechers USA Inc (SKX.N) and Reebok, which is owned by Adidas AG (ADSGn.DE), for advertising "toning shoes" with unfounded claims the footwear would enable users to get stronger.

His most likely successors are Commissioners Julie Brill and Edith Ramirez; Howard Shelanski, director of the FTC's Bureau of Economics; and Philip Weiser, a veteran of the White House and Justice Department who now teaches law at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Brill and Ramirez would not face confirmation by the Senate and are considered front runners. Any new commissioner would require Senate confirmation, which could easily take several months.

Without Leibowitz, a Democrat, the agency will have two remaining commissioners from each party. This raises the possibility of a string of deadlocked 2-2 votes.

APPLYING SERIOUS HEAT

Leibowitz leaves just weeks after the agency ended a probe of Google, its most publicly contentious investigation in years. The agency pushed hard on allegations that Google manipulated search results to hurt rivals, among other offenses.

But in early January, Leibowitz announced a more modest deal - one that ended the practice of "scraping" reviews from rivals' websites for its own products. Google also agreed to drop requests for sales bans when suing companies that infringe on a certain type of essential patents.

"I feel very strongly that we needed to do an investigation, that the allegations were very serious," he said.

"This was a case where there were a lot of complainants. They believed passionately that there were violations so it was not surprising that some of them were unhappy with the result. I survived Google and at the end of the day I feel pretty good about it."

On the privacy front, Leibowitz pushed hard to allow consumers to tell companies they do not want to be followed while online - known as "do not track" - and he claims some success.

"I think you're going to see more and more companies giving consumers a modest opt-out from third party tracking," he said.

TAKING ON THE DRUG COMPANIES

Leibowitz has perhaps been most energetic in fighting deals that brand-name pharmaceutical companies make with generic drug makers to delay the manufacture of cheaper versions of best-selling drugs.

Those "pay for delay" arrangements have vexed antitrust enforcers for more than a decade and the FTC has had mixed success fighting them in court.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said in 2011 that banning the practice would save the government $4.79 billion and lower U.S. spending on prescription drugs by $11 billion over a decade.

Leibowitz said The FTC's opposition to the practice was a "lonely fight for quite some time," although the record 40 agreements reached with brand-name drug companies in fiscal 2012 kept the issue in the news.

A breakthrough came in December when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to decide whether Solvay Pharmaceuticals Inc, now owned by AbbVie Inc (ABBV.N), acted legally when it paid three companies millions of dollars to not bring to market generic versions of AndroGel, a treatment for men with low testosterone.

"We obviously hope the Supreme Court will adopt our position, but it's equally important that some time soon there will be certainty so companies know what they can and can't do," he added.

(Reporting By Diane Bartz. Editing by Andre Grenon)

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