Progressives thought they had their dream pick to lead the Federal Trade Commission last year when President Biden appointed Lina Khan – but her management style is driving staff discontent and risks derailing her ambitions, The Post has learned .
Khan, who made a name for himself as a legal prodigy and Amazon critic before his Elizabeth Warren-backed confirmation as FTC chairwoman in June 2021, has vowed to aggressively fight monopolies in the tech space. and elsewhere.
Yet sources close to the agency, which has a mandate to enforce antitrust law and protect consumers, say academic brilliance doesn’t necessarily translate into managerial ability – and that its leader’s inexperience 33-year-old has long-time employees in the 1,100 people. the agency heads for the exits.
For example, Bureau of International Affairs Director Randy Tritell is expected to leave later this month after 24 years with the agency, two sources familiar with the FTC said. Tritell had challenged Khan’s management style and had seen several members of his team reassigned to work on mergers and acquisitions, the sources said.
FTC spokesman Peter Kaplan declined to comment on Tritell’s departure, but said the agency “had to identify creative ways to reallocate internal resources to help with this intense workload.” Tritell declined to comment.
Insiders fear infighting and brain drain could cripple Khan’s ability to execute on his agenda at a time when the FTC is already juggling several high-profile projects, including an antitrust lawsuit to force Meta to sell Instagram and WhatsApp and an investigation into Amazon that includes looking into its recent acquisition of the MGM film studio which could lead to a potential lawsuit.
“They put her in this position of running an important federal agency when she has no experience in this stuff,” Eileen Harrington, a former FTC executive director who spent 27 years, told The Post. at the agency. “He is a rising star who has been kicked out of the deep end.”
“People were devastated”
Staff members complain that Khan meets with rank-and-file employees much less frequently than former FTC presidents — and is seen as favoring like-minded law professors over experienced litigants and staffers who understand the slightest details of running a federal agency.
Harrington, a self-described Democrat, said she began receiving distressing calls from friends at the agency shortly after Khan took the reins last year. Khan took much longer to introduce himself to staff than previous presidents and had a dismissive attitude toward career employees, sources close to the agency said.
“People were devastated that all they got from the president’s office was criticism, a refusal to engage,” Harrington said, adding that some called Khan “abusive” and “bully.”
“They started quitting,” she said.
Kaplan, the FTC spokesman, countered that Khan had met with the leaders of every FTC team in his first two months. Khan also met with “all staff from almost every office in the agency” and gave staffers the opportunity to ask questions and share suggestions, according to Kaplan.
In addition to Tritell’s unannounced departure plan this month, other high-profile figures who have left the FTC since Khan’s arrival include the agency’s former chief economist Marta Wosinska, the ex Chief Privacy and Identity Officer Maneesha Mithal and former Consumer Protection Bureau Deputy. director Daniel Kaufman.
“People with 15, 25 years are leaving,” Kaufman, who left in October after 23 years at the agency, told The Post. “That’s pretty unprecedented in the kind of numbers I’m seeing.”
In a flurry of media interviews released Thursday, Khan vowed to pursue more “big lawsuits” that “focus on what we see as some of the biggest issues.”
Kaufman argues that Khan will struggle to achieve his goals without long-serving staff by his side.
“The senior career executives are the people who really understand the agency inside and out and understand how to get things done,” said Kaufman, who has since joined law firm BakerHostelter. “It’s a huge loss for the agency.
Since October, at least 40 FTC staffers have left the agency for new jobs, including positions at Big Tech companies such as Amazon, Apple and Google, MLex reported earlier in June.
“Chairman Khan’s aggressive law enforcement approach means FTC attorneys are in high demand, especially by tech companies with a history of violating FTC orders,” Kaplan said in response to the defections. staff, saying the staff attrition rate was on par with the first 12 months of the agency’s two previous presidents.
Khan’s allies argue his overhaul is needed to reinvigorate a stagnant FTC, even if it ruffles some feathers.
“The FTC has been moribund and ineffective for years and the result has been uncontrollable corporate concentration,” said Dan Geldon, consultant and former senior adviser to Elizabeth Warren. “Lina is moving quickly and boldly to turn the tide and she should continue to do so whether or not it provokes insider criticism.”
Dissatisfaction is not limited to managers. An internal survey showed the percentage of staff across the agency who have a “high level of respect” for senior agency leaders fell from 83% in 2020 to 49% in 2021, as The Information first reported in April.
After the poll was released, Khan overturned a public speaking ban that had angered employees – and his chief of staff apologized for making “people feel like they don’t have our trust and our respect,” according to the outlet. Staff members grumbled that the mea culpa came just before the Office of Personnel Management began sending out the 2022 edition of the morale survey.
Asked about the results of the 2021 survey, Kaplan said Khan has taken “a number of concrete steps to respond to staff feedback” and that she “shares the FTC staff’s passion for the work they do.” they do” and “have tremendous respect for their diligence and expertise.”
“Constantly increasing workload”
In May, Khan asked Congress to increase the agency’s budget from $377 million to $490 million so it could hire more staff and deal with its “ever-increasing workload”, citing a wave of mergers and acquisitions.
Even Khan’s harshest critics admit that the FTC deserves more funding, but they also worry that the agency is not using its current resources effectively.
For example, some career FTC staff members bristled at a New York profile of Khan published in November that paraphrased Khan as saying “she intends to lead the agency to choose consecutive cases, in less focus on results.
While Khan’s supporters praise this attitude as proof of her transformative vision, some critics have interpreted it as proof that the president plans to send staffers on wild chases that will result in headlines, but not by substantial legal victories.
Harrington went even further: “If the idea is, ‘We’re going to sue you even though we think we can’t win because that’s what we think the law should be’ – honestly, I think it is an abuse of power.”
In response to Harrington’s criticism, Kaplan said, “As Chairperson Khan has stated, her concern is that failure to take action against illegal transactions and practices sends a signal to the market that violation of law is acceptable. Given the agency’s limited resources, it focuses on targeting the biggest players who inflict the most harm and the root causes of the harm to prevent it from happening again.
The FTC has already scored several victories under Khan’s leadership.
Last December, the agency filed a lawsuit to block US chipmaker Nvidia’s $40 billion acquisition of British chip designer Arm, arguing the deal would allow Nivida to stifle competition in the computer space. Two months later, the companies canceled the agreement. US arms maker Lockheed Martin also scrapped plans to buy rocket engine maker Aerodyne for $4.4 billion in February following opposition from the FTC.
But critics also point to the number of new cases brought by the FTC’s Consumer Protection Bureau, which more than halved, from 79 in 2020 to 31 in 2021, according to Kaufman.
He said the agency is on track to surpass last year’s figure this year, but that’s a remarkably low bar.
“The 2021 numbers were so low that if they didn’t beat that number it would be really shocking,” he said.
Additional reporting by Lydia Moynihan