On consolidation watch

When some of the most powerful members of Congress accused his agency of using merger-review "shakedowns" and "legalized extortion" to saddle consolidating companies with harsh approval conditions, no one would have blamed FCC Chairman William Kennard for seeking a little divine protection.

He may not have received assistance from The Almighty, but Kennard did tap a former divinity student and youth minister to help revamp the FCC's merger oversight. Jim Bird, who traded in his clerical collar for a lawyer's briefcase in 1974, was picked to head the FCC's new transaction-review team last December. He was picked not so much for his spirituality, however, but for his reputation as one of Washington's top practitioners of "administrative law," a specialty focusing on the government's interaction with citizens and companies.

Bird had little background in telecommunications, but he felt he could apply lessons learned from 20 years dealing with regulators in general (and antitrust officials in particular) to fulfill his mission at the FCC, which was to design a merger-review process consistent from deal to deal and across the various telecommunications industries. He also was charged with designing a model that could be completed in a predictable time and would be as open as possible.

"Our goal is to make merger reviews more transparent and understandable to the public so they know what we're doing and where we are in the process with any particular merger," Bird says.

Bird's first task was to help his immediate boss, FCC General Counsel Christopher Wright, prepare a 180-day timeline that would serve as the template for all agency merger examinations no matter what industry sector-cable, broadcast, telephone or wireless.

Under the timeline unveiled March 1, the FCC would have six months to complete every merger review. Agency officials could, however, stop the clock to demand extra information from an applicant, or if the merging parties significantly revise their application-a solution some in Congress complain is an attempt to preserve the FCC's power to stall mergers and stifle calls for legislation that would reign in the agency's merger-review authority.

Next, Bird's office was charged with helping the FCC's various industry bureaus on specific merger reviews, such as the ongoing America Online/Time Warner deal. His staff, which includes an economist, four lawyers and administrative help, coordinates cross-bureau interaction-a must for today's rapidly converging industries-and checks to make sure that applications, information requests and conditions are applied consistently from bureau to bureau.

Bird, who left a lucrative partnership at Washington law firm Shea & Gardner, said he wanted to try his hand at public service and felt heading the transaction team was a post tailored for him. "I became interest in telecommunications three to four years ago because of the technology advancement and creation of the Internet," he says.

Bird gets high marks from Wright: "His breadth of experience and excellent judgment make him the perfect person for this difficult task."

Since graduating from the University of Chicago law school in 1977, Bird has been well-regarded for his appellate skills. Most notably, he served as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice William Brennan from 1978 to 1979. But it was his clerkship the previous term with federal appellate Judge Skelley Wright in Washington, a court brimming with appeals of federal regulatory rulings, that he says sparked an interest in administrative law.

Before turning to a law career, Bird earned a graduate degree in divinity from Harvard University and served a year as a Presbyterian youth minister. He was unsure of his ultimate calling when he entered law school, but by the time he finished the degree, had "decided what path I wanted."