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House panel flags Amazon and senior executives to Justice Department over potentially criminal conduct

The referral is a significant escalation of lawmakers’ years-long questioning of statements Amazon executives made during an investigation

(Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images)

A bipartisan group of House Judiciary Committee members has alerted the Justice Department to “potentially criminal conduct” by Amazon and senior executives in relation to a committee investigation into competition in digital markets.

In a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, the lawmakers, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), accused Amazon of engaging in a “pattern and practice” of misleading conduct that appeared designed to “influence, obstruct, or impede” the committee.

The referral is a significant escalation of lawmakers’ years-long questioning of statements Amazon executives made during lawmakers’ 16-month investigation into competition in digital markets that concluded in 2020. (Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)

Amazon has denied that the company misled the committee. “There’s no factual basis for this, as demonstrated in the huge volume of information we’ve provided over several years of good faith cooperation with this investigation,” Amazon spokeswoman Tina Pelkey said in a statement.

A Justice Department spokeswoman did not immediately comment.

The 24-page letter, dated March 9, accuses the Seattle-based company of lying in sworn testimony to the committee in 2019 about whether it uses data that it collects from third-party sellers to compete with them. “[C]redible investigative reporting” and the committee’s probe showed that the company was engaging in the practice despite its denial, the letter said.

Subsequently, as the investigation continued, Amazon tried to “cover up its lie by offering ever-shifting explanations” of its policies, the letter said.

Furthermore, “after Amazon was caught in a lie and repeated misrepresentations, it stonewalled the Committee’s efforts to uncover the truth,” according to the letter.

House investigation faults Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google for engaging in anti-competitive monopoly tactics

The lawmakers’ referral reflects mounting bipartisan antitrust scrutiny of Amazon and other large tech companies, following the House committee’s 2020 findings that tech giants relied on harmful means to solidify their dominance. Lawmakers from both parties have supported legislation that would prevent tech companies from boosting their own products over those of rivals, which could affect how Amazon treats third-party sellers on its platform.

Since its 2019 testimony, lawmakers repeatedly pressed Amazon on its comments about how it used third-party data. In October, they sent a letter to company CEO Andy Jassy, asking for “exculpatory evidence” to corroborate testimony that executives, including Bezos, made about the company’s use of third-party sellers’ data. Yet legal experts have warned that criminal investigations and charges for perjury are rare.

The Biden administration has signaled that it intends to take a tougher line on regulating major tech companies. Biden has chosen two major critics of Big Tech, Lina Khan and Jonathan Kanter, for key enforcement positions in the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department.

In addition to Nadler, Judiciary Committee members signing the letter include Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), chairman of the panel’s subcommittee on antitrust, commercial and administrative law; and Rep. Ken Buck (Colo.), the top Republican on the subcommittee. Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), two other subcommittee members, also signed the letter.

“Amazon and its executives must be held accountable for this behavior,” the letter said. “That is why we are referring this matter to the Department of Justice to investigate whether Amazon obstructed Congress or violated other federal laws. We look forward to hearing from the Department on this important matter.”

Aaron Gregg contributed to this report.