Houck: DoJ will beat Microsoft

But the landmark antitrust trial won't be a slam dunk, government attorney Stephen Houck says. And why is Bill Gates so 'contentious'?

One of the senior attorneys who battled Microsoft in court during 77 days of testimony says the government should prevail in the landmark antitrust case, but he allowed that it might not be a slam dunk.

"It's a complicated case and I'd be surprised if the judge ruled 100 percent our way," said Stephen Houck, New York attorney who quit the prosecution only weeks before presiding judge Thomas Penfield Jackson is expected to issue his finding of facts. "But I think he'll rule for us in most areas."

The burly 52-year-old, enjoying a rare break from a consuming regimen that required him to regularly commute to Washington, D.C. from New York for much of the last year, also spoke for the first time in public about his now-famous encounter with Microsoft chairman and CEO Bill Gates.

Along with government attorney David Boies, Houck participated in taking Gates' deposition at Microsoft's Redmond, Wash. headquarters prior to the start of the trial last fall. Throughout the duration of the case, the government was able to score points by playing excerpts featuring an uncomfortable and unyielding Gates, a tactic that Microsoft criticised as unfair. "Bill answered honestly to each and every of the government's questions," said Microsoft spokesman, Jim Cullinan. "And the facts and evidence offered at trial support Bill's testimony."

However, Houck said Gates didn't need much prompting to help clinch the government's contentions. "My impression was that he didn't want to be a witness at the trial," Houck said. "I think the contentious part is probably part of his personality."

During the trial, the government argued that Microsoft attempted to carve up the browser market at a June 1995 meeting with Netscape officials, mailing what amounted to a verbal threat with its offer. Microsoft disputed that depiction but government attorneys subsequently pressed Gates about his knowledge of the meeting during the deposition. "When David played excerpts of the testimony in court last Tuesday, there were questions I asked Gates where he denied any knowledge of that meeting -- even though there's a bunch of details to suggest he was well aware of it."

The departure of Houck, who received his law degree from Harvard after doing his undergraduate work at Princeton, had been expected after his candidate was defeated in the New York state attorney general's race in the last election. But Houck allowed that he may yet return to make a cameo performance back in Washington. "You may not have seen the last of me," said the Pennsylvania native, who left open the possibility of rejoining the prosecution if the judge orders oral arguments after ruling in the finding-of-fact stage of the trial.

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, who coordinated the states' role in the trial, described Houck's contribution to the case as "immense."

"He worked night and day before and after the case was filed," Miller said. "Steve and David [Boies] were a great team, and he made all the states proud."

"Externally, he's made some nice presentations in court and to the press," said Harvey Saferstein, an antitrust lawyer with Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson in Los Angeles. "My guess is that he's a very able lawyer and will be missed."

Life after Microsoft may be hard for Houck, who expects to return to private practice where he had specialised in antitrust and civil litigation. "To have an opportunity to work with someone like David [Boies] was a wonderful experience," he said. "There's never going to be a case like that again. The whole thing was a high point. It was the peak of my career." Looking back on his contribution, Houck said he hoped the lawsuit would help maintain a level playing field in a software industry where he said "Microsoft has used its monopoly power to make it difficult -- if not impossible -- to compete." "I don't think anyone on the government side believes the states ought to be involved in central planning," Houck said. "I do think there is a proper role for government, which is to make sure the market is structured in such a way to let other companies compete; and the more companies there are competing, the better it will be for consumers."

Take me to the DoJ/Microsoft special.