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ANTITRUST: The Cautious Tiger

4 minute read

He is bald, cautious and professorial. He has earned no great prestige within his profession or even within his specialty. He is so nondescript, in fact, that his rather solemn-minded boss, U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson, seems positively charismatic by comparison. But if Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Kauper (pronounced koy-per), 38, does not look like a tiger, he is beginning to act like one. In an Administration that has become all too cozy with big businessmen seeking influence, the chief of the Justice Department’s antitrust division has kept up steady pressure against monopolistic practices−including some allegedly committed by special friends of the White House.

Though Kauper’s department has filed roughly the same number of cases as in previous years, it has doubled the number of criminal actions−from eleven in 1971 to 23 in 1972. Last month three of the nation’s largest steel producers−U.S. Steel Corp., Bethlehem Steel Corp.and Armco Steel Corp.−were charged with conspiring to monopolize the Texas market for reinforcing bars. Indictments have also been returned against three major trucking firms charging them with trying to force competitors out of business. In Los Angeles, the Justice Department is conducting an investigation to determine if there was a widespread conspiracy to fix gasoline prices in 1971 and 1972; records of more than 30 companies have been subpoenaed. “My own sense of priorities,” says Kauper, “puts a heavy emphasis on price fixing and merger activity aimed at reducing competition. Price fixing is a crime, and corporate officials who engage in it ought to go to jail.”

Among White House pals to be pounced on by Kauper are the Goodyear and Firestone tire companies, whose higher-ups contributed heavily to Nixon’s 1972 campaign. Last month the two companies were charged with price cutting in order to drive smaller competitors out of business and with trying to monopolize the tire-replacement market. In the first important divestiture suit of the Nixon Administration, Justice is asking that the tire companies get rid of enough assets to make the industry competitive again.

Kauper has also tried to light a fire under the federal regulatory agencies, pointing out that part of their job should be to foster competition in the industries that they are charged with overseeing. The Justice Department has virtually taken over a private suit seeking to eliminate fixed minimum commissions on New York Stock Exchange security transactions. The department has joined an Interstate Commerce Commission investigation of the rates set by regional trucking organizations. When the trustbusters requested more than 100 subpoenas, even the ice was shocked. “The Justice Department is anxious to take over our authority,” grumbled ice Chairman George M. Stafford. Replies Kauper: “There is an increasing skepticism of the results of regulation. When you have your basic price structure fixed, you have lost a spur to innovate.”

A onetime law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and later a University of Michigan Law School professor, specializing in antitrust, Kauper was hired in mid-1972 by then Attorney General Richard Kleindienst. Kauper is the first to admit that much of the department’s new-found activism actually began under former chiefs. “Policies tend to move rather slowly,” he says. “In the course of a year, it’s hard to say that it’s this or that man who is responsible.” But in Nixonian Washington, where politics has influenced practice in many supposedly non-partisan offices, Kauper’s professionalism has won him the admiration of his department’s 320 antitrust lawyers. “Kauper is seen here as competent and professional,” says a department veteran, “and that’s good for morale. He doesn’t go checking politically before he does something.”

The department is often outmanned by the powerful corporations it confronts. They can field double or triple the number of attorneys that Justice assigns to a case. Department lawyers feel that they are catching only one out of every 100 antitrust violations in U.S. business, but Kauper is quietly adding to his staff−giving the antitrust tiger a few more teeth in its battle to maintain competition in America.

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