Tobacco industry TV ads spark government probe Anti-smoking group alleges GOP collusion

August 29, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department's criminal division is investigating allegations that Senate Republicans and the tobacco industry violated federal law by illegally colluding to torpedo anti-smoking legislation in June.

The department quietly informed Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle on Aug. 17 that it would examine whether the industry and Senate Republicans engaged in an illegal quid pro quo: political advertising in exchange for votes.

"The allegation that tobacco companies may have promised favorable political advertising in exchange for a senator's vote on specific legislation raises concerns under the bribery and gratuity statutes," wrote Assistant Attorney General L. Anthony Sutin. "The criminal division is presently examining this allegation to determine whether any further investigation is warranted."

The landmark tobacco legislation collapsed in Congress on June 18. Before the vote, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentuckyreportedly told fellow Republicans that tobacco industry officials had promised to continue running advertising through the November elections to try to provide political cover to Republican senators who would vote against the bill. The ads condemn anti-smoking legislation that would impose higher cigarette taxes as another effort to raise taxes on ordinary Americans.

McConnell denies any quid pro quo. He says he received no assurances from the industry before the vote. Instead, said McConnell's spokesman, Robert Steurer, the senator merely made "a statement of the obvious": that he was sure the industry would continue to run advertisements because it would be in the industry's best interest to do so.

Industry officials say the TV commercials amounted to perfectly legal issue advertising that was not tied to any political support they might have received from Republicans. But Justice Department investigators decided there was enough evidence to merit further review.

The probe was prompted by Daschle's request July 2 that Attorney General Janet Reno examine whether an explicit promise of advertising in exchange for votes would violate federal election laws. The Justice Department told Daschle this month that any such collusion should be investigated as a civil violation of campaign finance law by the Federal Election Commission, not the Justice Department.

Although saying a possible civil violation was for the FEC to examine, Sutin's letter from the department said that "such conduct, if substantiated, could run afoul of the strict limitations on corporate contributions and expenditures contained" in federal law.

The Justice Department itself, Sutin said, will examine whether the promise of advertising constituted a crime of bribery.

Steve Duchesne, an industry spokesman, dismissed the allegations as groundless and called the complaint, initiated by the National Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, "an act of desperation."

"There's no sort of quid pro quo here," Duchesne said. "This is a straightforward, factual advertising effort against higher taxes."

Tobacco legislation is all but moribund in Congress. A House Republican proposal has languished with little support and no momentum; that proposal would not raise tobacco taxes. A largely Democratic bill that includes a $1.50-per-pack tobacco tax increase has no support among Republican leaders.

Yet the industry's TV advertisements seem nearly as ubiquitous now as they were before the tobacco bill died, though Duchesne said they are tapering off. The ads feature earnest-sounding, working-class people fretting about the prospect of higher taxes and threatening retribution at the ballot box against any lawmaker who dares raise them.

The tobacco industry continues to spend millions of dollars on advertising that insists, according to one ad, that "this tobacco tax some in Congress are talking about doesn't make any sense."

More than $40 million has been spent on advertisements that have run in 65 of the top 75 media markets in the country, according to Nielson Media Research. The industry even secured a spot on CNN immediately after President Clinton's confessional speech Aug. 17 on his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. A Senate Republican aide said the tobacco companies have earmarked $60 million to keep the campaign running through the November elections.

The advertising seems to be targeted at states where Republicans are locked in tight races, complained Matthew L. Myers, general counsel of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. For instance, through July 18, tobacco industry ads had run 1,847 times in Missouri media markets, where Republican Sen. Christopher S. Bond is considered vulnerable.

In Nevada, where Republican Rep. John Ensign is fighting to unseat Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, the ads had run 1,418 times. And in Georgia, where Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell is waging a re-election bid, the advertisements had run 1,113 times between April 1 and July 18, according to Strategic Media, an ad-tracking service.

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