Congress Calls on Jeff Bezos of Amazon to Testify

Lawmakers want to question Mr. Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, as part of its antitrust investigation.

WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee on Friday called on Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, to testify before Congress, in a major escalation of its investigation into the country’s largest technology companies.

Mr. Bezos, the world’s richest person, is the highest-profile executive called to testify as part of the antitrust investigation. A hearing would allow lawmakers to question him about accusations that Amazon abuses it market power in online retail, mistreats warehouse workers and hurts small businesses.

Many other tech leaders, including Tim Cook of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Sundar Pichai of Google, have appeared before Congress in recent years, answering questions under oath on issues like privacy and the spread of disinformation. Mr. Bezos has not yet endured the same spotlight.

The Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee has for months been investigating the power of Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple. Last year, lawmakers requested a slew of internal documents from the companies, including emails between top executives. The move on Friday, written in a letter to Mr. Bezos, is a sign that the inquiry has not stopped because of the coronavirus pandemic.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers led by the Democratic chairman of the committee, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, threatened to use its power to legally compel Mr. Bezos to testify if he did not do so willingly, a serious step in any congressional investigation.

“Although we expect that you will testify on a voluntary basis, we reserve the right to resort to compulsory process if necessary,” the lawmakers wrote to Mr. Bezos.

Amazon did not comment on Friday on his plans.

Mr. Bezos has traditionally relied on his deputies, like Jay Carney, a former White House press secretary, to interact with policymakers. He has done few in-depth interviews about Amazon in recent years. But he has made moves toward becoming a greater presence in Washington.

He bought The Washington Post in 2013, and keeps a home in the city’s upscale Kalorama neighborhood. He hosted an after-party for the annual Alfalfa Club dinner this year at his mansion, drawing business and political leaders.

President Trump has frequently targeted Mr. Bezos with criticism and tried to link Amazon to The Post when attacking the paper. (The publication is owned by Mr. Bezos personally and has no corporate relationship with Amazon.)

In the fall, the Pentagon awarded a $10 billion cloud computing contract to Microsoft over Amazon’s rival bid; Amazon has sued, saying Mr. Trump’s antagonism was a factor.

In recent months, the lawmakers talked to Amazon about summoning Mr. Bezos to Capitol Hill, according to two people familiar with the discussions, who would speak only anonymously because the talks were private. But Amazon has resisted the efforts, the people said.

Last week, an article in The Wall Street Journal detailed how Amazon employees had used data from third-party sellers to hone the company’s private label offerings, potentially contradicting an Amazon lawyer’s testimony to the committee last year. The lawmakers said in their letter that if the “article is accurate, then statements Amazon made to the committee about the company’s business practices appear to be misleading, and possibly criminally false or perjurious.”

Drew Herdener, an Amazon spokesman, said in a statement that “we strictly prohibit employees from using nonpublic, seller-specific data to determine which private label products to launch.”

“While we don’t believe these claims made by The Wall Street Journal are accurate,” Mr. Herdener added, “we take these allegations very seriously and have launched an internal investigation.”

So far, the antitrust investigations have been largely a bipartisan affair. But there are signs that is changing. A few Republicans on the committee signed the letter, though Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, who just took over as the panel’s top Republican, did not.

Russell Dye, a spokesman for the committee’s Republicans, said that “our members have questions for Amazon and want to get answers for the American people,” but that “we wonder what Judiciary Democrats’ true motivations are.”

Mr. Dye said Democrats had argued this year that “companies like Amazon should not exist and should be broken up simply because they are large successful businesses.”

At a fund-raiser this year, Mr. Nadler made comments about breaking big companies, drawing condemnation from Republicans on the committee, who complained the remarks suggested that the investigation had a predetermined outcome. Several prominent liberals, including Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, have criticized the company’s power and reach, including during their presidential campaigns.

It is not clear exactly when Mr. Bezos would appear, as Congress has curtailed its usual business during the pandemic.

The public has increasingly turned to Amazon’s online store during the pandemic. Millions of homebound Americans have used the company’s delivery service to order food and other essential items, pushing its network of warehouses to its limits. From his Texas ranch, Mr. Bezos has spent most of his time managing the company’s response to the virus.

On Thursday, Amazon reported that it had $75.5 billion in sales in the latest quarter, up 26 percent from a year earlier.

But Amazon’s critics have seized on this moment as well. This growing coalition of workers, activists and lawmakers says the company has not done enough to protect its front-line workers, calling on the company to offer hazard pay and to better communicate with warehouse staff.

In the financial report on Thursday, Mr. Bezos said the company planned to spend $4 billion or more in the next quarter “on Covid-related expenses getting products to customers and keeping employees safe.” He said those costs could mean that the company would have no profit.

Some of the company’s critics applauded the lawmakers’ move on Friday.

“Amazon often acts as though it’s above the law,” Stacy Mitchell, a co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and a longtime critic of the company, said in a statement. “Today, the House Judiciary Committee firmly demonstrated that it’s not.”

Source; The New York Times