President Obama's first pick to head the once-fearsome Department of Justice Antitrust Division scared would-be monopolists, at least for a moment.
"When markets are competitive, the consumer wins," Christine Varney told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce back in 2009. She blamed the ideology of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush that, she claimed, let industries regulate themselves. "Higher prices, reduced product variety, and slower innovations" were the result, Varney said.
She promised her "trustbusters" would put market-smothering financial, health-care, energy, and telecom bosses in prison.
After two years, Varney left for a lucrative job with a New York law firm. Then her former boss, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., announced a $100 million-plus cost-savings plan that included shutting four of the seven regional antitrust offices, effective January. That included the Philadelphia office.
Don't worry, Holder assured congressional critics. Fewer offices didn't have to mean less prosecution. Antitrust lawyers could relocate to Washington or New York. "Consolidating the staff into larger teams will allow the team to more effectively and efficiently manage larger investigations," division spokeswoman Gina Talamona said at the time.
But 14 of the 15 antitrust lawyers assigned to the Philadelphia office are out of the division. Ten have left government. Lawyers have also exited newly shut offices in Dallas, Atlanta, and Cleveland.
Lawyers from the Philadelphia office, started in 1948, once put General Electric and Westinghouse bosses in prison for fixing electric-generator prices. They busted local trash, retail, and beer cartels. In recent years they worked on national and global cases: Antonia Hill and her team sent GE Capital investment bankers to prison for ripping off taxpayers with municipal bond bid-rigging. Wendy Norman helped build a case against bankers for fraudulently fixing benchmark Libor interest rates.
Hill is the only one to stay with the Antitrust Division, moving to New York.
Robert Connolly, who headed the Philadelphia office, has joined the local branch of the multinational corporate law firm DLA Piper. "I'm looking forward to doing a lot of international cartel work, which is a lot of what we did in the Philadelphia office," he told me.
"The government isn't always right, you know. Sometimes they close the wrong offices," Connolly added.
Kimberly A. Justice joined the institutional investors' law firm Kessler Topaz Meltzer & Check L.L.P, of Wayne. Timothy Bridgeford joined Tyco International, the Princeton industrial conglomerate.
Bradford L. Geyer, Norman, and Richard Rosenberg joined a new firm, Geyer Gorey L.L.P.
"The loss of the Antitrust Division employees to the department resulted in an irreparable loss of talented white-collar prosecutors," Geyer said.
Three other lawyers from the office retired; another, Anne Spiegelman, is training to be a nurse. "She's doing something useful with her life," said Connolly, admiringly.
A few, besides Hill, are still in federal service. Connolly's deputy, Joseph Muoio, joined the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey. Three others also relocated to local U.S. Attorney offices.
Spokeswoman Talamona declined to discuss the lawyers' individual decisions, or detail how Antitrust will "effectively and efficiently manage larger investigations," without cutting its caseload, after losing so many veterans.
Contact Joseph N. DiStefano
at 215-854-5194, JoeD@phillynews.com, @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.