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Where in the World Are the Federal Trade Commissioners?

MoJo obtains their travel records—and finds them briefing corporate lawyers in Aruba, Cancun, and elsewhere.

| Tue Jul. 7, 2009 5:00 AM PDT

Does winter weather get you down? Would you rather spend chilly days at the beach in Cancun or skiing in Quebec rather than sitting behind a desk? Well, maybe you should become a commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission. FTC commissioners are charged with managing the affairs of the federal government's premier consumer protection agency—a job that seems to entail a significant amount of foreign travel, some of it legitimate, some of it a bit questionable.

On the questionable side: In January 2007, the American Bar Association's antitrust section held its annual midwinter leadership meeting in Aruba at the swank new Hyatt Regency hotel and casino. It was an exclusive group, mostly private defense lawyers who represent some of the nation's biggest companies. But joining the white-shoe attorneys at the beach were two FTC commissioners, Pamela Jones Harbour and William Kovacic, who delivered a private briefing. The group, whose members tend to oppose the agency's regulatory agenda, subsidized the commissioners' travel.

 

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 The Aruba trip kicked off a busy travel year for the commissioners, who each made at least one foreign trip in 2007, according to FTC records released to Mother Jones through a Freedom of Information Act request. Here's a sampling from their itineraries (these numbers represent a rough estimate and may include days where a commissioner only spent part of the time traveling):

  • William Kovacic: After Aruba, Kovacic headed to Johannesburg for five days for a meeting of the South African Competition Tribunal in early February. Then, after a short stop in DC, Kovacic was off to Paris, Ottawa, and Brussels. Other highlights that year included visits to Istanbul, Moscow, Zurich, Sydney, Kazakhstan, Lima, Singapore, Seoul, Luxembourg, Barcelona, Toulouse, and multiple visits to Brussels. Total days abroad: 123.
  • Pamela Jones Harbour: After soaking up some Aruba sunshine, Jones Harbour dashed off to Sydney. Later, she visited Mexico City; Australia; Whistler, British Columbia, and attended meetings on e-commerce in Tokyo and Hanoi. She flew back and forth to Asia, business class, to the tune of $10,000. Total days abroad: 46.
  • Deborah Majoras: She jetted off to Davos for a week at the World Economic Forum, and attended conferences or gave speeches in Zurich, Bucharest, Moscow, Lisbon, Brussels, and Brazil, where she provided technical assistance to the Brazilian government's competition office. Total days abroad: 38.
  • John Rosch: He gave speeches to legal groups in Zurich, Florence, and Venice. Days abroad: 26.
  • Jon Leibowitz: The new FTC chairman is the least traveled commissioner, but he did manage to escape Washington's summer for the ABA antitrust section meeting in Whistler, Canada, in August 2007. Total days abroad: 11.

While 2007 was a busy year for the commissioners, these itineraries aren't atypical—especially for Kovacic, whom FTC staffers have christened "Commissioner Magellan" for his globe-trotting ways. Since President George W. Bush appointed Kovacic to a Republican slot in 2006, he has averaged nearly 100 days of foreign travel a year. So far in 2009, he has been abroad for more than 60 days. (He spent the end of June in Taiwan, Rome, and London, and celebrated July 4th in China at a conference on competition law.)

All this jetting about appears somewhat out of sync with the commission's largely domestic role. The FTC's wide-ranging mandate includes everything from enforcing used car sales regulations to ensuring that clothing manufacturers properly instruct consumers whether or not to put their shirts in the dryer. It runs the "do not call" registry to keep telemarketers at bay and cracks down on bogus weight loss cures. The agency also shares responsibility with the Justice Department for overseeing mergers and acquisitions of big companies and enforcing antitrust laws.

Referring to Kovacic's 2007 itinerary, Bruce Silverglade, legal affairs director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says, "A hundred and twenty three days in one year at first blush does seem excessive. It's not the international trade commission." But Jon Leibowitz, the new FTC chairman, approves. "Bill is wonderfully dedicated. He's like a rock star on the international antitrust circuit...The work he's done internationally has been very helpful to the commission and he's never missed a meeting."

The FTC's broad mission does require some foreign travel. For instance, an FTC member represents the United States at the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), whose meetings are usually abroad. The FTC also participates in various international consumer protection and competition networks to facilitate law enforcement. In recent years, these issues have become more global in scope, creating a need for greater international cooperation. And with encouragement from Congress, the FTC has worked to shore up other countries' antitrust enforcement mechanisms, hoping that increased competition will open markets and ultimately reduce poverty. 

But some of the commissioners' trips seem less than critical. For instance, in 2006, Jones Harbour attended a New York State Bar Association meeting in Shanghai, an outing that cost the FTC about $1,869. The association arranged a "pre-meeting" excursion around Beijing, including tours of the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square, which Jones Harbour participated in. She paid for her own lodging and meals on those days, but during the 10 days or so she was in Asia, her official work consisted of giving just one speech to the Shanghai conference plus an off-the-record presentation, according to the FTC.

In February 2007, Kovacic appeared on a panel at a Brussels conference hosted by the Progress and Freedom Foundation, an American advocacy group linked to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and funded largely by big telecom companies, whose mergers and other business practices the FTC often monitors. The foundation picked up the tab for Kovacic's trip from Paris to Brussels for the day. Kovacic says he also conducted official business in Brussels, meeting with European Commission representatives as well as with members of the US mission to the European Union.

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