David Vladeck, head of the consumer protection bureau from 2009 to 2012, said some recusals were common for F.T.C. officials, but it is unusual for an official to have to step aside from his office’s most important cases.
“There’s no question about his qualifications. The question is, Covington has a very large practice in many of the fields where the bureau is supposed to be the principal law enforcer, including financial regulation, privacy and data security,” said Mr. Vladeck, who now teaches law at Georgetown University. “So there are legitimate questions to ask about how far-reaching the recusals will be.”
Mr. Vladeck added that the Facebook and Equifax cases were “two extremely important investigations and both of them will be precedent-setting.”
The F.T.C. confirmed in March that it was investigating whether Facebook violated a consent decree it signed in 2011 after the regulator concluded Facebook routinely shared its users’ data without permission.
The decree required the company to give users more control over their data and assess other potential privacy risks. In recent months, Facebook has said the political data firm Cambridge Analytica improperly harvested the public profile data of up to 87 million of its users.
The F.T.C. is also investigating Equifax, one of the three major consumer credit reporting agencies, after it revealed last year that hackers had gained access to company data that potentially compromised the personal data of about 143 million Americans.
Mr. Vladeck said he did not have any recusals when he was tapped to lead the bureau, but that was unusual. He said the bureau’s acting director, Thomas Pahl, had recused himself from the Equifax investigation because of past legal work for the company.
Terrell McSweeny, a former F.T.C. commissioner who stepped down last month, said that although the number of Mr. Smith’s recusals seemed atypical, she was confident the bureau would be able to effectively investigate Facebook, Equifax and others, in part because there are able staff members already at work on those cases. “The F.T.C. is a strong institution,” she said.