This story was updated on March 28th with comments from Sen. Al Franken.
Last year, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown joined 6 lawmakers in urging the Justice Department to stop a controversial merger between health insurance giants Anthem and Cigna. Now, the Ohio Democrat is sounding the alarm about reports that President Donald Trump is set to nominate Makan Delrahim, a former Anthem antitrust lobbyist, to head the Justice Department’s antitrust division — the same division with a lawsuit currently blocking the merger.
“This is the definition of conflict of interest,” Brown said in an emailed statement to International Business Times. “If confirmed, I fully expect Mr. Delrahim to recuse himself from the Anthem-Cigna merger case.”
The White House did not respond to IBT’s questions about whether Delrahim would be required to recuse himself from working on the merger lawsuit. The Justice Department declined to answer questions about whether Delrahim would recuse himself.
Sen. Al Franken -- a Democrat on the Judiciary Committee that will review Trump's nominee -- told IBT that he will question Delrahim about his links to companies that he would oversee at the Justice Department. He also said he is concerned about the potential for Trump to intervene in antitrust cases.
"American consumers are facing unprecedented consolidation in a number of important markets, which means higher prices, fewer choices, and even worse service when it comes to things like internet service, air travel, and health insurance," Franken said in an emailed statement. "So I look forward to questioning President Trump’s pick to head the DOJ’s Antitrust Division, Makan Delrahim, to ensure he prioritizes consumers and competition over his corporate ties – with everyone from Comcast to Anthem to Pfizer. We must also ensure that the Antitrust Division remains appropriately independent from the influence of the President – who has already demonstrated a willingness to treat proposed mergers like one of his business negotiations – and vigorously enforces our nation’s antitrust laws.”
Brown and Franken's comments came as the watchdog group United to Protect Democracy — run by former Obama administration lawyers — sent a letter to the Justice Department’s inspector general requesting an investigation into Trump’s contacts with Anthem.
IBT previously reported that Anthem lawyers recently told a Delaware judge that they are relying on Trump officials to settle the lawsuit and permit the merger to happen over the objections of groups representing physicians, hospitals and consumers. Following those court statements, Trump had a personal phone call with Anthem CEO Joseph Swedish. Soon after, Reuters and the Wall Street Journal reported that Delrahim would be appointed to head the antitrust division.
“Recent news reports...raise substantial concerns about potential improper communications or political interference with the Department’s ongoing handling of this matter,” wrote United to Protect Democracy’s Ian Bassin, a former associate White House counsel under President Obama. “Such contacts or interference could violate the decades-old policy of restricting contacts between the White House and the Department of Justice regarding specific legal and enforcement actions. These issues go to the heart of the Department’s obligation of evenhanded application of the law, and so fall squarely within your office’s jurisdiction.”
According to federal disclosure records, Delrahim lobbied for Anthem from July 2015 to September 2016. Those records say he lobbied specifically on “Antitrust issues associated with Anthem's proposed acquisition of Cigna.”