By John D. McKinnon 

WASHINGTON -- More antitrust cases are likely to be filed against Alphabet Inc.'s Google soon by state attorneys general, even though partisan-tinged wrangling has clouded the path forward.

At least two separate though overlapping groups of attorneys general are investigating the company concurrently. One effort, led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, focuses on online advertising and could lead to a lawsuit being filed within weeks, according to people familiar with the situation.

That probe has been under way for more than a year, with attorneys general from 48 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico initially joining in a bipartisan effort in cooperation with the Justice Department.

But in recent weeks fissures have emerged involving some of the Democratic and Republican attorneys general, the people said. Much of the disagreement has centered on whether to join in the Justice Department suit against Google filed Tuesday.

That divide was highlighted when attorneys general from 11 states signed on to the Justice Department lawsuit, all of them Republicans. In addition to Texas, the states that joined were Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana and South Carolina.

Some Democrats have argued to their colleagues that the Justice Department's focus has been too narrow in its investigation of the online-search business, the people said, and wanted it to include a broader range of issues.

Some Republicans have questioned the sincerity of that claim, suggesting that Democrats may be stalling because they don't want to support a Republican-led effort ahead of the Nov. 3 election. That argument appeared to be undercut somewhat by the number of Republican attorneys general who didn't sign on either.

Further complicating the issue, senior officials in Mr. Paxton's office recently complained to law enforcement authorities about their boss in an unrelated case, saying they had found evidence of wrongdoing related to a campaign donor.

Mr. Paxton has defended his actions and vowed not to resign, making it uncertain if the issue will affect the Google investigation.

States have their own antitrust laws and can seek their own legal remedies for violations. For example, states often are better positioned to seek monetary damages than the federal government is, legal experts say.

Google declined to comment. In a recent blog post on competition issues, the company emphasized that its products help people as well as other businesses.

"Our products increase choice and expand competition," it said. "They level the playing field for small businesses everywhere -- enabling them to sell their products, find customers, reduce their costs and, in difficult times, get back on their feet."

A second, less-publicized Google probe includes a bipartisan group of attorneys general that includes New York, Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska, North Carolina, Tennessee and Utah.

That group released a statement on Tuesday saying its probe is expected to conclude "in the coming weeks."

"If we decide to file a complaint, we would file a motion to consolidate our case with the DOJ's," the statement said. "We would then litigate the consolidated case cooperatively, much as we did in the Microsoft case," it said, referring to the government antitrust action against the software company two decades ago that was brought jointly by the Justice Department and a number of states.

The statement praised the "strong bipartisan cooperation among the states and the good working relationship with the DOJ on these serious issues."

One former Democratic state attorney general said recently that the split in the internet-search coalition between Democratic attorneys general and their Republican counterparts appears to be consistent with recent partisan divisions.

"Right now the climate is that the Democratic AGs are extremely reluctant to sign onto anything that [U.S. Attorney General William] Barr's DOJ would be bringing and are always going to be looking with skepticism on what Barr is doing," the former official said.

Representatives of several Democratic attorneys general in the coalition didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

Write to John D. McKinnon at john.mckinnon@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 20, 2020 12:21 ET (16:21 GMT)

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