November 16, 2017 / 4:43 PM / a month ago

Ex-Trump lawyer to defend AT&T-Time Warner merger

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - AT&T Inc said it hired media lawyer Daniel Petrocelli, whose clients have included U.S. President Donald Trump, to defend its acquisition of media and entertainment company Time Warner Inc if the government sues to block the deal.

Petrocelli, a partner at O‘Melveny & Myers in Los Angeles, will be lead trial counsel for both companies if the case ends up before a judge, a spokesman for AT&T, the No. 2 U.S. wireless company, said on Thursday.

Petrocelli has represented Walt Disney Co and Time Warner in the past. Last year he defended Trump, then a presidential candidate, against fraud lawsuits involving real estate seminars known as Trump University.

Since the deal was announced, the primary concern has been that AT&T’s ownership of Time Warner content would raise costs for rival entertainment distributors - especially online - and stifle innovation.

The AT&T-Time Warner deal has become a political flashpoint because Trump, during his presidential campaign last year, vowed to block the proposed deal and has kept up frequent sharp criticism of Time Warner’s CNN news network.

The Justice Department is believed to prefer significant asset sales in order to gain approval for AT&T’s plan to buy Time Warner.

In the absence of a settlement, the department is expected to file an antitrust lawsuit as soon as this week to block the $85.4 billion AT&T deal.

AT&T’s chief financial officer, John Stephens, said in Barcelona on Thursday that it was unclear when the deal would close.

“As of this time, the timing of the close is uncertain,” Stephens told an investor conference, adding, “We continue to believe the transaction will close.”

Shares of AT&T closed up 2.1 percent at $34.52 on Thursday, while Time Warner was up 0.7 percent to $88.01.

The department has approached 18 state attorneys general to try to win their support for a lawsuit, a person briefed on the matter said on Wednesday.

One attorney general, who asked not to be named, complained that the Justice Department was stingy with information like an economic analysis needed to decide whether to sign on. The person also expressed concern about the targeting of CNN.

As of Thursday, there were no indications that any states had signed on to a complaint, according to a person familiar with the matter.

AT&T, which is also a major pay-TV provider, and Time Warner have struggled to keep viewers who have flocked to online services like Netflix Inc and Amazon.com Inc’s Prime Video.

AT&T wants to buy Time Warner so it can bundle mobile service with video entertainment and take online advertising from Facebook Inc and Alphabet Inc.

It had been widely expected that the deal would be approved by putting some limitations on how AT&T managed the content, which is known in antitrust circles as a “behavioral remedy.”

The Justice Department’s top antitrust enforcer, Makan Delrahim, in a speech to antitrust experts at the American Bar Association on Thursday, said that those sorts of remedies smacked of regulation and that he opposed them because they were ineffective and a drain on government resources.

“Behavioral remedies presume that the government should serve as a roving ombudsman of the affairs of business; even if we wanted to do that, we often don’t have the skills or the tools to do so effectively,” he said.

Delrahim did not refer to AT&T’s plan to purchase Time Warner in his speech and did not take questions.

Reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Dan Grebler

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