FTC staffers told to back out of public appearances

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Less than a week into Lina Khan’s tenure as Federal Trade Commission chair, her chief of staff ordered the agency’s staff to cancel all public appearances, according to internal agency emails viewed by POLITICO.

In a June 22 email to more than two dozen of the FTC’s top staffers, Khan’s chief of staff, Jen Howard, announced a “moratorium on public events and press outreach.”

“For the time being I am putting a moratorium on staff participating in external events,” Howard wrote. The message was sent to the head of the FTC’s major offices, including those who oversee all of the agency’s economics, antitrust lawyers and consumer protection attorneys.

In a follow-up message two days later, Howard said that any staff who were scheduled for public events should cancel those appearances.

“I want to make clear that for any situations where staff are currently scheduled to do a public event and thus need to contact event organizers to withdraw their participation, the message they should convey is that they are sorry they can no longer participate due to pressing matters at the FTC,” she wrote.

An FTC spokesperson confirmed that the agency has called off all staff public appearances for the time being.

“The FTC is severely under-resourced and in the midst of a massive surge in merger filings. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment,” Howard said in a statement to POLITICO. “So the agency pushed pause on public speaking events that aren't focused on educating consumers to ensure staff time is being used to maximum benefit and productivity. The American public needs this agency solving problems, not speaking on panels.”

The FTC, which enforces antitrust and consumer protection laws, has about 1,100 staffers, fewer employees than the agency had at the beginning of the Reagan administration. Only about 40 of the agency's lawyers are devoted to privacy and data security issues, the agency's former chair told Congress in 2019, in contrast to the United Kingdom, which has an agency of roughly 500 employees focused on privacy.

As recently as December, the FTC was discussing steps to deal with a possible cash shortage including freezing pay and cutting back on the number of lawsuits the agency files.

Since taking over three weeks ago, Khan has swiftly begun advancing her priorities, holding the FTC’s first open meeting in decades last week. In her opening comment, Khan pledged to provide transparency for the agency’s work and host open meetings “on a regular basis.”

“As a democratic institution, we have a vital responsibility to connect our work to the people we serve,” she said. “Establishing a regular public forum can allow us to learn from the consumers, workers and honest business owners we have a legislative mandate to protect.” The temporary moratorium on public appearances may hamper efforts to portray the agency as newly transparent.

The emails also indicate that the new FTC chair takes a keen interest in media and messaging. In one email, Howard writes that all press releases and blog posts need to be at Khan’s direction “and with her approval.”

“That means that she should be deciding on press strategy for every announcement, and involved in crafting those materials from inception.”

Khan’s pledge to offer greater FTC transparency met with some pushback from the agency’s two Republican commissioners, who criticized her for not providing sufficient notice of proposed changes or allowing public comments before those proposals received a vote.

The moratorium on public speaking has thrown a wrench into several upcoming conferences that often feature FTC staff, such as next week’s American Bar Association’s annual consumer protection conference, which takes place every two years.

A Columbia Law School professor and advocate for stronger antitrust enforcement, Khan was confirmed as an FTC commissioner on June 15. Within hours, the White House appointed her as the agency’s chair.

That move surprised Capitol Hill, as the president normally announces if a nominee is the FTC chair pick before Senate confirmation to allow for questions on agency priorities. The chair designation doesn’t require Senate confirmation; after President Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, he selected FTC Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter as acting chair.

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