Progressives thought they had their dream pick to lead the Federal Trade Commission last year when President Biden nominated Lina Khan — but her management style is leading to staff discontent and risks derailing her ambitions, The Post has learned.
Khan, who made a name for herself as a wunderkind legal scholar and critic of Amazon prior to her Elizabeth Warren-backed confirmation as FTC Chair in June 2021, has promised to aggressively fight monopolies in the tech space and elsewhere.
Yet sources close to the agency, which has a mandate to enforce antitrust law and protect consumers, say that academic brilliance doesn’t necessarily translate into management ability — and that its 33-year-old leader’s inexperience has longtime staffers at the 1,100-person agency heading for the exits.
For example, Office of International Affairs director Randy Tritell is expected to leave later this month after 24 years with the agency, two sources close to the FTC said. Tritell had taken issue with Khan’s management style and had seen several members of his team reassigned to work on mergers and acquisitions, the sources said.
FTC spokesperson Peter Kaplan declined to comment on Tritell’s departure but said that the agency has “had to identify creative ways to re-allocate internal resources to help with this intense workload.” Tritell declined to comment.
Insiders worry that internal conflict and brain drain could handicap Khan’s ability to execute her agenda at a time when the FTC is already juggling several high-profile projects, including an antitrust lawsuit seeking to force Meta to sell off Instagram and WhatsApp and a probe of Amazon that includes scrutiny of its recent acquisition of film studio MGM that may lead to an eventual lawsuit.
“They’ve put her in this position of running an important federal agency when she has zero experience doing this kind of thing,” Eileen Harrington, a former executive director of the FTC who spent 27 years at the agency, told The Post. “She’s a rising star who’s been thrown off the deep end.”
‘People were devastated’
Staffers gripe that Khan meets with rank-and-file employees far less frequently than previous FTC chairs — and is perceived as favoring likeminded law professors over experienced litigators and staffers who understand the nitty-gritty details of running a federal agency.
Harrington, a self-described Democrat, said she started receiving distressing calls from friends at the agency shortly after Khan took the reins last year. Khan took far longer to introduce herself to staff than previous chairs and had a dismissive attitude toward career employees, sources close to the agency said.
“People were devastated that all they were getting from the chair’s office was criticism, refusal to engage,” Harrington said, adding that some called Khan “abusive” and a “tyrant.”
“They started quitting,” she said.
Kaplan, the FTC spokesperson, countered that Khan met with leaders of each FTC team in her first two months. Khan has also met with “the full staff of nearly every office in the agency” and given staffers opportunities to ask questions and share suggestions, according to Kaplan.
In addition to Tritell’s previously unreported plan to depart this month, other high-profile figures who have ditched the FTC since Khan joined include the agency’s former top economist Marta Wosinska, ex-privacy and identity protection chief Maneesha Mithal and former Bureau of Consumer Protection deputy director Daniel Kaufman.
“People with 15, 25 years of seniority are leaving,” Kaufman, who left in October after 23 years at the agency, told The Post. “That’s fairly unprecedented in the kind of number that I’m seeing.”
In a flurry of interviews with media outlets published Thursday, Khan vowed to pursue more “big lawsuits” that “focus on what we see as some of the biggest problems.”
Kaufman argues that Khan will have a tough time accomplishing her goals without longtime staff on her side.
“The senior career staff are the people who really understand the agency inside and out and understand how to get things done,” said Kaufman, who has since joined law firm BakerHostelter. “It’s a huge loss for the agency.”
Since October, at least 40 FTC staffers have left the agency for new jobs, including roles at Big Tech firms including Amazon, Apple and Google, MLex reported earlier in June.
“Chair Khan’s aggressive enforcement approach has meant that FTC lawyers are in high demand, especially by tech companies with a history of violating FTC orders,” Kaplan said in response to the staff defections, claiming that the staff attrition rate has been on par with the first 12 months of the agency’s two previous chairs.
Khan’s allies argue that her overhaul is necessary to reinvigorate a stagnant FTC, even if it ruffles some feathers.
“The FTC has been moribund and ineffective for years and the result has been out of control corporate concentration,” said Dan Geldon, a consultant and former senior adviser to Elizabeth Warren. “Lina is acting quickly and boldly to reverse the tide and she should continue doing that regardless of whether it provokes some insider griping.”
The discontent isn’t limited to managers. An internal survey showed that the percentage of staffers across the entire agency who have a “high level of respect” for the the agency’s senior leaders nosedived from 83% in 2020 to 49% in 2021, as first reported by The Information in April.
Following the release of the poll, Khan rolled back a ban on public speaking that had angered employees — and her chief of staff apologized for making “people feel like they do not have our trust and respect,” according to the outlet. Staffers grumbled that the mea culpa came just before the Office of Personnel Management began sending out the 2022 edition of the morale survey.
Asked about the 2021 survey results, Kaplan said Khan has taken “a number of concrete steps to address staff feedback” and that she “shares the passion of the FTC staff for the work they do” and “has enormous respect for their diligence and expertise.”
In May, Khan asked Congress to up the agency’s budget from $377 million to $490 million so that she can hire more staff and cope with its “ever-increasing workload,” citing a wave of mergers and acquisitions.
Even Khan’s harshest critics concede that the FTC deserves more funding, but they also are concerned that the agency isn’t using its current resources effectively.
For example, some career FTC staffers bristled at a New Yorker profile of Khan published in November that paraphrased Khan as saying “she intends to steer the agency to choose consequential cases, with less emphasis on the outcomes.”
While Khan backers praise this attitude as evidence of her transformative vision, some critics have interpreted it as evidence that the chair plans to send staffers on wild goose chases that will result in headlines but not substantive legal victories.
Harrington went even further: “If the idea is, ‘We’re going to sue you even though we think you can’t win because this is what we think the law should be’ — honestly I think this is an abuse of power.”
In response to Harrington’s criticism, Kaplan said: “As Chair Khan has stated, her concern is that not taking action against illegal deals and practices sends a signal to the market that lawbreaking is acceptable. Given the agency’s limited resources, she is focused on targeting the largest actors that are inflicting the most harm and the root causes of harm to prevent it from recurring.”
The FTC has already claimed several victories under Khan’s leadership.
Last December, the agency sued to block US chipmaker Nvidia’s $40 billion acquisition of U.K. chip designer Arm, arguing that the deal would let Nivida stifle competition in the computing space. Two months later, the companies called off the deal. American weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin also ditched plans to buy rocket engine maker Aerodyne for $4.4 billion in February following FTC opposition.
But critics also point to the number of new cases brought by the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, which fell more than half from 79 in 2020 to 31 in 2021, according to Kaufman.
He said that the agency is on track to exceed last year’s figure this year, but that it’s a remarkably low bar.
“The 2021 numbers were so low that if they didn’t beat that number it would be truly shocking,” he said.
Additional reporting by Lydia Moynihan