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Justice Department Quietly Halts Antitrust Probe

posted on November 30, 2012

Estate tax reform, of course, is just one piece of an intricate fiscal cliff puzzle. 

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner met privately with congressional leaders Thursday, and proposed $1.6 trillion in higher taxes and $50 billion in new stimulus spending. 

The Obama Administration’s opening bid included plans for legislation next year aimed at saving $400 billion through reforms in Medicare and other programs.  The Administration also called for a permanent extension of the debt ceiling with no offsetting spending cuts. 

The proposal went over like a lead balloon with Congressional Republicans who categorically rejected the offer.  

Further away from the fiscal cliff, other members of the Obama administration are dealing with more mundane activities. And in a move last Friday that may have slid under the radar during a holiday-shortened news week, the Justice Department halted its anti-trust investigation of a major seed producer. 

Justice Department Quietly Halts Antitrust Probe

Eric Holder, U.S. Attorney General: "I'm reminded of President Eisenhower's observation that ‘farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you're a thousand miles from the cornfield. His words remain true today. And in the decades since he spoke them, the challenges facing farmers and other leaders across our agriculture industry have become even more difficult."

More than 30 months ago, the Obama Justice Department launched its first public examination of alleged antitrust practices in the U.S. agricultural sector. In a series of five workshops across the nation, officials studied everything from packer ownership of livestock to a perceived lack of competition between biotech giants. In a March 2010 workshop in Ankeny, Iowa, cabinet officials and farmers spent hours explaining the nature of their relationships with seed companies. The discussion clearly demonstrated the Obama Administration was examining allegations that agriculture giant Monsanto operated as a monopoly on products such as its trademark Roundup Ready soybeans.

Christine Varney, the Justice Department's chief antitrust officer at that time, entered the Obama administration pledging to tackle market concentration complaints and unwind what she called the "extreme hesitancy" of the Bush Administration. After the March 2010 panel discussion, Varney acknowledged that the Justice Department was in the early stages of antitrust investigations but declined to mention Monsanto or Dupont Pioneer, an underwriter of Market to Market. The Justice Department solicited information from both companies in the process of its investigation.

Christine Varney, Antitrust Division U.S. Justice Dept: "We do not bring a preconceived notion to the table. We do not have an agenda to pursue or a result. We are not looking to restructure the economy or companies that participate in the economy. We are looking to enforce the law vigorously and fairly - wherever takes us."

Attorney General Eric Holder took it a step further in describing a federal legal team ready to act quickly.

Eric Holder, U.S. Attorney General: "But you should not take from the fact that we are having these meetings is some sense that we are sitting on our hands waiting for the 5th workshop to decide what it is we will be doing. We are active right now."

But the bold press conferences and subsequent workshops across the country apparently led the Obama Administration to a legal dead end.  During Thanksgiving week, more than two-and-a-half years after launching its first workshop, the Justice Department quietly announced it was halting its anti-trust investigation.  Varney, who vigorously defended the Justice Department’s examination of anti-trust issues, left the administration in 2011 and Attorney General Eric Holder’s future in a 2nd Obama term is uncertain.

Monsanto, which loses patent protection on its well-known Roundup Ready soybeans in 2014, issued a public statement last week following the federal government’s announcement – saying:

“We’re pleased that the Justice Department has closed its inquiry and this issue is now behind us.”

But the legal wrangling is far from over between Monsanto and rival Dupont Pioneer.  Earlier this year, a U.S. district court in St. Louis awarded Monsanto a $1 Billion judgment from Dupont citing patent infringement. Dupont is appealing that verdict and a separate legal case between the seed giants also is brewing. Dupont Pioneer’s own lawsuit against Monsanto alleging antitrust violations could reach a jury in fall 2013.

Tags: agriculture news