Justice Department officials sought deeper cuts in tobacco fines, sources say

$10 billion proposal sparks outrage from Democrats

June 17, 2005|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Senior Justice Department officials, under fire for a 90 percent reduction in sanctions sought in the government's racketeering case against the tobacco industry, had pushed for even deeper cuts, sources close to the situation say.

Government lawyers, who were ordered to slash their demand for a $130 billion industry-funded smoking cessation program, had been planning to propose a $16 billion campaign as closing arguments in the marathon case got under way last week, according to people close to the trial team who spoke on condition of anonymity.

However, on June 7, the day of the government's summation, the trial team was told to cut the demand still further, to $6 billion, the sources said.

After a heated lunch-hour meeting - at which lawyers told senior staff that they couldn't credibly propose $6 billion - they were cleared to ask federal Judge Gladys Kessler for a $10 billion program, the sources said.

The $10 billion proposal, made public that afternoon, sparked outrage among anti-smoking activists and Democratic lawmakers, who claimed that political appointees in the Justice Department improperly interfered to protect tobacco companies from a big hit.

At the request of several lawmakers, the department's Office of Professional Responsibility has opened an investigation into the sudden reduction in the government's demand.

Senior officials, led by Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum, the department's No. 3 leader, have said the change was entirely proper.

They say it reflects the legal realities facing the government after a federal appeals court limited remedies they could seek under civil provisions of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO.

According to Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, "the fact that the number moved continuously over the last 24 hours ... is further proof that the ultimate figure was a political calculation, not a legal one."

The Los Angeles is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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