The situation is so stereotypical that observers could easily draw comparisons with bad mob movies, where in which heavy-handed ruffians intimidate a juror so that he won't rule against the mob boss. This week, Microsoft stands accused of similar practices in its European antitrust fight, which took a bizarre turn when the company hired a European Commission (EC) official, Detlef Eckert, just days before he would have weighed in on whether the EC should pursue sanctions against Microsoft. And it gets worse: The official probably would have voted to pursue the company, based on his previous comments about the software giant, which he described as "causing real problems" in the software industry. Now he's no longer part of the process.
Eckert is taking 3 years of unpaid leave from his senior position in the EC's information society directorate to work for Microsoft in Paris. This weekend, the EC denied that Eckert's hiring is a conflict of interest because his work at Microsoft is unrelated to his EC job. "There is no need to investigate," an EC spokesperson said. "\[Eckert\] will be working on areas unrelated to what he has been doing in the commission. Normal rules will ensure there is no conflict of interest."
Microsoft competitors and critics are calling foul, however. Edward J. Black, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), told "The New York Times" that Eckert was "empathetic" to the group's anti-Microsoft view. His hiring, Black said, "appears to be part of a \[Microsoft\] effort to neutralize people." The newspaper also quotes an unnamed source, who said that Eckert's "views about Microsoft were well known. He was not a fan of the company."
The EC will issue an internal draft ruling in its Microsoft investigation sometime this month. Had Eckert still been working at the EC, he would have prepared a public response to the draft, which the EC would have used to determine whether to pursue sanctions against the company. Instead, Eckert, who viewed confidential documents regarding the EC's case against the company last year and met with Microsoft rivals lobbying for tough penalties, won't play a role in the case. Eckert signed a confidentiality agreement in which he pledged not to divulge any confidential information to Microsoft. Furthermore, the agreement bars Eckert from lobbying on Microsoft's behalf.