Last week, the Federal Trade Commission made a new appointment to its in-house Bureau of Consumer Protection. As Andrew Smith was tapped to head the Bureau by FTC Chairman Joseph J. Simons, his appointment was approved by the five-member panel on a party-line vote. The three Republican members and two Democratic members voted for and against him, respectively, ultimately giving Smith the slim majority he needed.
But who is Andrew Smith, and why should his appointment be of concern? A partner at Covington & Burling, Smith has spent years representing various white-collar clients, “including many banks, lenders, credit-reporting agencies, and technology companies”, per The New York Times. Of great significance are three of his clients in particular: Facebook, Uber, and Equifax. All three of these companies are currently undergoing active investigations at the FTC. While Uber and Equifax are subjects of huge data breaches, Facebook may have violated some privacy rules altogether. Between these three scandals, the amount of consumers whose data were compromised numbers in the hundreds of millions. The bottom line is that because of these companies and their negligence, consumers were hurt—and Smith fought against consumers when it mattered most.
Assuredly, Smith did say that he would recuse himself from any ongoing investigations. Whether the necessity of recusal is of concern might depend on your perspective. Former head of the Bureau, David Vladeck, for his part, said that recusals are fairly commonplace for FTC officials—although some find it unusual that the Bureau head would not be able to have any say in the three most high-profile cases that the organization is handling. Nevertheless, in general, “[FTC Chairman] Simons noted the FTC has a long history of bringing in private-sector lawyers with potential conflicts into the commission”, per The Intercept. Indeed, there exists a symbiotic loop between the FTC and private law firms and organizations who duke it out with the government—a perpetual series of “consistent transitions” à la a “’revolving door’”.
Smith’s appointment is of concern for consumers, have no doubt. But, his appointment is perhaps symptomatic of a greater, core issue. The intimacy of one of the government’s chief regulatory agencies, and private-sector companies whom lay in direct opposition to those very same regulations, is deeply concerning. To have one of the private-sector’s staunchest representatives appointed as head to the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection is something of a quaint irony, at best. At worst, in the words of Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), it is “corruption, plain and simple”.