WASHINGTON (Reuters) - William Baer, a widely respected antitrust veteran, is the White House's top choice to head the Justice Department's antitrust division, legal sources said.
Baer, a former chief of the Federal Trade Commission's competition division with wide experience in private practice, 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, which reviews mergers to ensure they comply with antitrust law and prosecutes price-fixing and other antitrust violations.
The division drew attention recently when it opposed AT&T Inc's $39 billion deal to acquire wireless rival T-Mobile, and 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.
Another strong contender for the antitrust post is Richard Parker, also an FTC veteran and a partner with O'Melveny and Myers LLP, the 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.
The antitrust division's acting chief, Sharis Pozen, plans to step down at the end of April. She became temporary head of the division after her predecessor, Christine Varney, left in August.
The timing of the announcement of a new chief is uncertain, particularly because President Barack Obama has faced tough opposition to his nominees from Republicans in Congress.
The division's key outstanding cases include the purchase of Nortel's patent assets by a consortium led by Apple, and Google's buy of Motorola Mobility. It also has a range of criminal price-fixing probes.
The decision of who succeeds Pozen will lie largely with Attorney General Eric Holder.
If the White House decides Senate confirmation would be too hard to get in an election year, one solution could be to name Leslie Overton, an antitrust division lawyer and a former partner at the law firm Jones Day, as acting head, the sources said.
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 temporary choice to avoid a bloody confirmation fight, the sources 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.
That will not matter, says Foer. "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," said Foer.
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)