Reno and Gore plot to enrich trial lawyers

June 11, 1999|By David K. Martin

WASHINGTON -- Critics of U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno have attacked her for either ignoring or whitewashing one Clinton administration scandal after another.

Whether you agree with them or not, you have to wonder about the core competence of Ms. Reno's Justice Department when it asks Congress to provide $20 million to hire more lawyers and so-called "expert witnesses" to sue the U.S. tobacco industry.

The Justice Department wants to spend $15 million to hire 40 new lawyers to make a federal case against the tobacco industry and throw in an additional $5 million to pay for "expert witnesses" in the trial.

The department already has hired Minneapolis trial lawyer Michael Ciresi to give its new tobacco hires a primer on how to sue the nation's cigarette makers. Mr. Ciresi is one of the reigning experts -- his firm, Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi, walked away with a staggering $550 million as its share of last year's tobacco class-action sweepstakes.

Rather than defend itself in 46 trials against individual states, the tobacco industry agreed to a record $246 billion settlement last November. Because the negotiated settlement kept actual courtroom litigation to a minimum, the private lawyers hired by the state attorneys general walked with amounts that in many instances represented payments of more than $21,000 for each hour actually worked.

Corrupt practices

Of course, that kind of payday can breed corruption. In Texas, a former Democratic attorney general is under investigation for allegedly backdating a contract for one of his personal-injury lawyer friends so that he could receive $260 million in fees from the tobacco settlement.

The Clinton administration justifies its proposed new lawsuit with a smirk by contending that tobacco industry deception led the federal government to be ignorant of the dangers of smoking. That ignorance, in turn, prevented it from taking adequate action to curb smoking. Thus, the government should be compensated for the harm caused by smoking. If alleged government ignorance and inaction is enough for a lawsuit, we had better start building tens of thousands of new courtrooms.

Let's be honest. As the 2000 presidential election draws near, Al Gore needs -- in addition to a personality redo -- a popular issue to run on. What better issue than the tried and true one of nobly fighting Big Tobacco?

Political bedfellows

Mr. Gore also needs money, and who better to be a source of funds than the personal injury lawyers? Keep in mind that the personal injury lawyers already have branded Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Mr. Gore's likely opponent, as Enemy No. 1 for his unflinching support of tort reform.

This latest example of using the federal government for political purposes is worse than Mr. Gore's fund-raising activities at Buddhist temples and his "Dialing for Dollars" talkathon from the White House.

This time the Clinton/Gore team is actually asking the American people for tens of millions of dollars to help prosecute its political agenda. That is clear from the advance propaganda spinning out of the Justice Department.

As recently as April 1997, the department contended that the Medicare and Medicaid statutes "do not provide explicit authority for the federal government to pursue suit." Now, with the Gore campaign gearing up, Justice is changing its tune.

Ironically, the government may well be more responsible than the cigarette makers for persuading people to smoke.

Until 1974, the federal government regularly gave free cigarettes to soldiers.

Ms. Reno's request to beef up her staff of more than 9,000 lawyers is blatantly political. In reality, it's little more than an in-kind contribution of $20 million for Mr. Gore's presidential campaign. The money will be repaid -- and then some -- in campaign contributions by the plaintiffs' tobacco bar.

Congress should act swiftly to reject Ms. Reno's request for $20 million to hire more tobacco lawyers. Plaintiffs are doing just fine with the current crop.

David K. Martin, a former Associated Press reporter and Denver Rocky Mountain News editor, writes about legal, environmental and health affairs as a free-lance writer in Washington. His e-mail address:

Pub Date: 6/11/99

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