The Justice Department officials who will decide whether President Joe Biden’s anti-monopoly guru can handle the government’s massive case against Google previously ran nonprofits that took loads of cash from the tech giant, disclosures show.
In May, the feds tentatively yanked Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Kanter—whom the administration brought on last year to lead its antitrust division—from its investigations and legal efforts against Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc, including the mega-suit the Department of Justice brought in 2020 alleging the company unfairly undercuts rivals. The move came after Google urged the federal government to force Kanter to recuse himself, noting his previous private-sector work against the company on behalf of such clients as Microsoft and Yelp, and his history of critical commentary about the California-based powerhouse’s business practices.
“AAG Kanter’s prior representations, actions, and statements raise concerns that having him supervise the Department’s actions involving Google may not satisfy the requirement that those actions be fair and impartial,” the company wrote in a letter to the department late last year. “AAG Kanter’s statements disparaging Google and his extensive representation of parties who are suing Google and are deeply enmeshed in the Department’s investigations of Google create at least an appearance of impropriety that warrants investigation.”
But the officials who will make a final determination about whether Kanter will resume his responsibilities in the Google cases have their own histories in the private sector—including with organizations that benefited from the company’s lavish giving.
That decision will ultimately fall to Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, Kanter’s superior. Prior to attaining her post last April, Gupta served as president and CEO of the nonprofit Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and its affiliate, the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a role she assumed in 2017 after exiting the Obama Administration.
As far back as 2016, and through this year, Google’s own biannual releases have listed the Leadership Conference as among “the groups that receive the most substantial contributions” from the company’s philanthropic arm. The firm’s disclosures do not divulge dollar amounts, and it did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Daily Beast.
However, Gupta’s total compensation including salary and benefits at the Leadership Conference groups is a matter of public record: more than $1,154,206 through 2020, the most recent year for which their tax forms are available.
The Department of Justice declined to comment for this story. In a statement to The Daily Beast, the Leadership Conference said it had paid Gupta accrued vacation time when she went on leave in January 2021, but has not granted her any other benefit since she re-entered public service last year.
Gupta is not alone. Her senior counselor, Gene Kimmelman—a veteran of the Obama Administration’s antitrust division—headed up the consumer advocacy organization Public Knowledge between 2014 and 2021. This group, too, has featured on Google’s lists of the biggest recipients of its largesse since 2015.
Public Knowledge’s inconsistently updated “Funding Sources” page does not reveal exact figures for the size of the gifts it got from Google, but rather lump the company into its “$25,000+” category for 2015-2017, 2018-2019 and 2019-2020, and the $50,000 group in 2020-2021. These categories do not provide upper ceilings for the size of the donations.
However, more precise figures are available for Kimmelman’s compensation: $1.88 million during his tenure atop the nonprofit. Public Knowledge told The Daily Beast that Kimmelman severed his connection to the group at the start of 2021, and has not received any further payments since that date.
The push to recuse Kanter, known as an outspoken critic of tech giants and an advocate for stronger anti-monopoly action, has aroused outrage from progressives, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
More than two dozen left-of-center groups signed on to a letter to Gupta in the days following Kanter’s removal, urging her to restore him to his leadership role on the Google case. The missive scoffed at Google’s argument that Kanter’s private-practice work on behalf of its competitors represents a conflict-of-interest.
“Would an environmental lawyer who filed suit against Chevron in private practice be expected to recuse themselves from scrutiny of the company if they were tapped to lead the DOJ Environment and Natural Resources Division?” the epistle demanded. “Google’s demand that Mr. Kanter recuse himself from scrutiny of the company is an effort by a corporate giant to bully regulators into submission.”
The Department of Justice did not indicate to The Daily Beast when its final decision would be forthcoming.