WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When the Federal Trade Commission recently intensified its probe of Internet giant Google, it hired the high-powered Washington lawyer who helped send Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh to the death chamber.
With little anti-trust experience but a long record of victory, Beth Wilkinson built a reputation as a tough litigator with cases like that of McVeigh and the defense of Big Tobacco against smokers’ lawsuits, and her hiring was seen by some as a sign that the FTC was contemplating a suit against Google.
Alternatively, anti-trust experts said, the agency could be using Wilkinson’s reputation to push Google to settle, essentially saying: Deal with us at the negotiating table or you’ll deal with her in court.
FTC Commissioner Thomas Rosch, who met Wilkinson when they practiced law together, said he worked with her 11 years ago on her first anti-trust case and was impressed by her determination.
The case never went to trial, but Wilkinson insisted on going ahead with a planned mock trial.
“At the time, I said ‘I’m going back to San Francisco,’” said Rosch. “She stayed for the rest of the mock and she won the mock. She’s a quick study ... and she’s very diligent.”
Wilkinson has been in the limelight before.
She argued as a prosecutor for the execution of McVeigh and aided in the U.S. government case against former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.
In private practice, she worked for Big Tobacco, and defended a pharmaceutical giant against charges that its drug raised breast cancer risks.
Her career even included a stint at the housing finance agency, Fannie Mae, where she was pushed out as general counsel when the government took control at the height of the mortgage crisis.
William Ohlemeyer, former head of litigation for Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, who hired her to defend the company against consumer lawsuits, described her as “the kind who could grab your arm and twist your arm behind your back until you say ‘no.’”
Wilkinson, who declined interview requests but answered some questions by email, is also a juggler, the mother of three and the wife of NBC newsman David Gregory.
She’ll work part-time probing Google while preparing for a tobacco case retrial and defending a new entertainment industry client, Activision Blizzard Inc, against a high-stakes lawsuit.
Wilkinson, a graduate of Princeton University and the University of Virginia’s law school, cut her teeth doing legal work for the U.S. Army. She was a junior member of the team that convicted Noriega on drug trafficking charges in 1992.
Two years later in New York as an assistant U.S. attorney, Wilkinson helped prosecute Dandeny Munoz Mosquera, who had blown up an Avianca jetliner with more than 100 passengers over Colombia on the orders of drug traffickers. Munoz Mosquera was convicted in 1994 and given 10 life sentences.
She helped prosecute McVeigh, who detonated an explosives-filled truck outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
Wilkinson argued passionately that McVeigh should be executed because he committed “the crime that the death penalty was designed for.”
“It’s difficult to contemplate how the murder of 168 individuals with families and friends, churches, hobbies, volunteer activities and interests would not be enough in and of itself to warrant the death penalty for the individual responsible,” she told the jury.
McVeigh was executed in 2001, and defense attorney Stephen Jones remains critical of Wilkinson’s conduct. He said her partners on the prosecution team “acted in the highest traditions of the Department of Justice” but he thought she fell short, calling her “economical with the truth.”
Jones said Wilkinson was not forthcoming in discussing what the government knew about the involvement of U.S. and German neo-Nazis in the blast.
“I found her evasive and disingenuous,” he said.
After the McVeigh trial, Wilkinson was recruited to take a leading role with the Constitution Project’s Death Penalty Committee, which addresses flaws and unfairness in death penalty cases.
She met Gregory at the McVeigh trial and they married in 2000 in Nantucket, their summer retreat from Washington’s upscale Foxhall neighborhood.
After the McVeigh case, Wilkinson joined Latham & Watkins LLP in Washington and developed a reputation as a crisis manager.
An aide to then-Representative Gary Condit hired her when the office came under investigation in the disappearance of Capitol Hill intern Chandra Levy. A Salvadoran immigrant was eventually convicted in the case.
Wilkinson took on the challenge of defending Philip Morris USA against a tide of lawsuits filed after the industry settled with 46 states in 1998 and agreed to reimburse states for smoking-related medical costs.
Ohlemeyer said he met Wilkinson through a mutual friend who described her as someone who has “experience in trying major cases and an interest in helping you guys.”
He hired her to try a California lawsuit filed by a former smoker who had cancer.
“As she became more familiar with our issues, it became obvious that she was a creative and critical thinker and was obviously very, very good at organizing evidence and explaining to people in a way that was easy to understand,” said Ohlemeyer, now at Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP.
Wilkinson’s most recent tobacco case was in St. Louis, Missouri where smokers alleged that Philip Morris had deceived consumers by advertising the safety of its “light” cigarettes.
After a mistrial, a new trial was set for January 2013.
The plaintiff’s lawyer, Mark Bronson, complimented Wilkinson’s skills even as he criticized her client. “Personally I would never, ever represent a tobacco company,” he said.
But defending tobacco may not have been Wilkinson’s most controversial job. In February 2006, she became Fannie Mae’s general counsel amid its highly publicized accounting scandals. Fannie acknowledged errors and restated past earnings by $6.3 billion.
Wilkinson negotiated a 2006 federal settlement in which Fannie paid $400 million to end the probe.
Part of Wilkinson’s $3.1 million-a-year job was battling Republican opponents of Fannie, a debate still raging today. She strongly defended the agency, according to a policy expert who often disagreed with her.
“I was never really sure back in ‘06 to ‘08 when she finally got clipped if she really knew what was going on or if she was just an attack dog,” said the person.
Wilkinson and other senior managers left the agency in September 2008 when Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson announced a government takeover.
Wilkinson was not named in a 2011 civil complaint filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission, alleging that Fannie Mae deceived shareholders by underreporting its subprime mortgage exposure.
Months after leaving Fannie Mae, Wilkinson joined New York-based Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, a leader in national litigation firms.
Her first major case was for Pfizer, the world’s largest drug maker. She argued in Philadelphia that the menopause drug Prempro - made by Wyeth, a Pfizer subsidiary - did not cause the breast cancer suffered by two women defendants.
The jury found for Pfizer after Wilkinson dissected evidence suggesting a connection to the drug. Wilkinson has since won two other Prempro cases.
More than six million women took Prempro before a 2002 Women’s Health Initiative study linked the medication to breast cancer.
Wilkinson’s FTC role will be to probe whether Google uses its search engine clout to unfairly promote its own businesses, such as Google Places and travel sites.
Competitors contend that Google is corralling users simply by engineering searches so that its sites are listed first.
Wilkinson, who was hired in April, will work on the Google case 130 days over the next year.
European regulators, who are pursuing similar allegations, said on May 21 that Google has “a matter of weeks” to settle to avoid formal charges or fines.
Wilkinson’s Google work will come even as she prepares for the Philip Morris retrial, set for January.
She was recently hired to represent Activision Blizzard Inc in a lawsuit filed by two former lead developers of Modern Warfare 2, Jason West and Vincent Zampella, who claim they were improperly terminated. A trial date was set for June 1.
Wilkinson said in an email that her case load should not be viewed as a sign that she thinks the Google case will be quickly settled.
“There is no connection between my trials and the likelihood of the Google matter going to trial,” she wrote.
Reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Jim Loney