Records Show Special Treatment for Former Employers of FTC Chair Khan and Her Chief of Staff

Records Show Special Treatment for Former Employers of FTC Chair Khan and Her Chief of Staff

  • March 8, 2023
FTC frantically searched for letter signed by a former employer, while thousands of comments submitted by the public languished

Today, Protect the Public’s Trust announced that documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveal an unusually close relationship between Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chair Lina Khan, her Chief of Staff, Jen Howard, and their former employers leading to the appearance of preferential access.

Chair Khan worked as a policy analyst at the Open Markets program, later Open Markets Institute (OMI), from 2011-2014 and then served as OMI’s legal director from 2017-2018. Her Chief of Staff, Jen Howard, worked for “Free Press,” an advocate for FTC’s regulation of tech companies as its Director of Communications for more than three years earlier in her career.

Despite prohibitions on preferential treatment of organizations and individuals providing comments on federal actions, FTC records show that OMI’s efforts to drive the agenda at FTC have received special attention. In one instance, OMI emailed Ms. Khan’s Chief of Staff to give her a “heads up” that OMI had put together a coalition of organizations to join in its letter urging FTC to block a proposed merger of grocery store chains. The email further explained that OMI would submit the letter directly to the Chief of Staff.

In another example, upon first learning in the press of a letter opposing the merger that had been signed by OMI, Ms. Khan’s Chief of Staff sent an urgent email to nine FTC officials demanding, “Did we receive this letter yet?” An Assistant Director at FTC responded that “thousands of letters” had been submitted on the proposed merger. When the letter was located the next day, it was specifically noted that it had been signed by OMI, even though there were twenty-six signatories in all. The documents do not reveal what treatment the “thousands” of other letters not signed by Ms. Khan’s former employer received.

Other documents also show the influence of “Free Press.” In one instance, the Co-CEO of Free Press directly emailed Chair Khan’s immediate office forwarding a letter urging her to regulate the use of personal data by tech companies. The letter was forwarded directly by a lawyer in the office to both Chair Khan and Ms. Howard. Free Press subsequently requested a meeting with Chair Khan to discuss the letter. When the lawyer asked Ms. Howard how to respond to Free Press’s meeting request, Ms. Howard explained, say “you will circle back soon…”

In another instance the Co-CEO of Free Press directly emailed Ms. Howard seeking a meeting with “you and Chair Khan … to hear more about your tech agenda.” Ms. Howard said she was not available to meet in person as requested by the Co-CEO, but eagerly advised the Co-CEO to contact an attorney in Ms. Khan’s office to “connect on alternative ways we could touch base!!”

None of the records show that former employers made meeting requests through formal channels – something that is commonplace and required at most agencies, especially for meetings with senior political appointees. Whether the requests were never made, or FTC has no formal process for requesting such meetings, reaching out directly to senior leadership raises concerns under federal ethics regulations prohibiting officials from providing preferential treatment to any organization or creating an appearance of impropriety.

These documents raise deep concerns over the independence of the FTC’s most powerful decision makers,” said Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust.  “At a time when the FTC has aggressively turned its focus on industries struggling to deal with supply chain and inflation issues – issues arguably related to the government’s policy agenda – one would expect an increased diligence to curate a reputation of objectivity and propriety.  These records tell a different story. Despite the Biden Administration’s continual refrain to be the most ethical in history, at the FTC it appears if you have a connection to the top, the Commission will bend over backwards to ensure your voice is heard over the thousands of others attempting to weigh in.”