WASHINGTON (Reuters) - William Baer, a widely respected antitrust veteran, is the White House's top choice to head the Justice Department's antitrust division, two sources close to the process said this week.
Baer, who headed the Federal Trade Commission's competition division when it stopped a merger between Staples and Office Depot in 1997, currently leads the antitrust division of the law firm Arnold and Porter LLP.
Baer is seen as someone who would continue the present policies of the Justice Department's antitrust office, four Washington antitrust experts said. The office reviews mergers to ensure they comply with antitrust law and prosecutes price-fixing and other antitrust violations.
The division successfully opposed AT&T Inc's $39 billion deal to acquire wireless rival T-Mobile USA last year, and in May threatened to sue if NASDAQ OMX Group and IntercontinentalExchange Inc proceeded with a bid for NYSE Euronext.
But it has struck compromises on other deals, such as Ticketmaster's buy of Live Nation in 2010 and Google's buy of ticketing software company ITA last year.
The division's key outstanding cases include the purchase of Nortel's patent assets by a consortium led by Apple, and Google's purchase of Motorola Mobility. It also has a number of criminal price-fixing probes.
Another strong contender for the antitrust post is Richard Parker, also an FTC veteran and a partner with O'Melveny and Myers LLP, the antitrust sources said.
"None of the people we've talked about is a bomb-thrower or a laissez-faire dropout," said Bert Foer, head of the American Antitrust Institute think tank.
Sharis Pozen, the acting assistant attorney general for antitrust, plans to step down at the end of April. She succeeded
Christine Varney, who left last August. The decision of who succeeds Pozen will rest largely with Attorney General Eric Holder.
Timing of the announcement of a new assistant attorney general for antitrust is uncertain, particularly because President Barack Obama has faced tough opposition to his nominees from Republicans in Congress.
If the White House decides that Senate confirmation would be too hard to get in an election year, one alternative could be to name Leslie Overton, a lawyer in the antitrust division, as acting assistant attorney general, the antitrust sources said. A former partner at the law firm Jones Day, she could take over the role without a Senate vote because she works for the Justice Department.
Overton, whose husband is a political appointee at the Justice Department, was named one of the best lawyers under age 40 in 2010 by the National Bar Association, a predominantly African-American group.
Seth Bloom, general counsel on the Senate antitrust subcommittee headed by retiring Senator Herb Kohl, may also be a good choice to avoid a confirmation fight because of his Senate ties, the sources said. Kohl has also gone to bat for him at the White House, Foer said.
Both Baer and Parker have connections to the Justice Department's high-profile fight with AT&T.
Baer's firm, Arnold & Porter, is home to a key AT&T antitrust lawyer, Richard Rosen, and Parker represented T-Mobile USA parent Deutsche Telekom AG.
But Foer said, "I don't think that having been at the other side of a big case would be a problem unless there was something about the way that they conducted themselves that generated personal hostility."
The Justice Department and all the candidates named were contacted for comment. All declined or did not return calls.
(Reporting By Diane Bartz; editing by John Wallace)