Ashcroft May Have Hidden Opposition to DOJ Tobacco Suit
While Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft testified last Wednesday during a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing that he had "no predisposition" to dismiss the Justice Department's lawsuit against the tobacco industry, CongressDaily reports that the former Missouri senator indicated in a letter last summer that he had "serious reservations" about the litigation. During his testimony, however, Ashcroft also called himself "no friend of the tobacco industry," offering "regret" that "smoking is very dangerous to individuals." CongressDaily reports that Ashcroft does not accept direct contributions from the tobacco industry.
Responding to questions from Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Ashcroft said that he had "limited knowledge" of the lawsuit. "Is this the case where there were three causes of action and two of them have been dismissed, but the RICO cause remains?" he asked, adding, "That's about all I think I know in terms of the matter." Ashcroft also told Kennedy that, if confirmed, he would consult DOJ officials before evaluating the lawsuit. However, in an Aug. 24, 2000, letter to Steve Sorkin, a Missouri state organizer for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Ashcroft addressed "specific concerns" about the litigation, such as the lawsuit's "utility" to reduce youth smoking. "While I am deeply troubled by the increase in tobacco use by teenagers today, I do not believe that this lawsuit will help in the fight to curb teen smoking," Ashcroft wrote.
He also expressed "strong reservations" about whether the federal government should pursue the lawsuit. "This litigation brings sharp focus to the issue of whether the federal government should pursue a lawsuit against a legal industry," he wrote, adding, "I am concerned that the DOJ lawsuit could set an unwise precedent leading to the federal government filing lawsuits against countless other legal industries." He also suggested that Congress would serve as a "better venue" for addressing the issue. "I support and believe that it is Congress' duty to establish a reasonable framework for those injured by products sold in interstate commerce to adjudicate their claims," he wrote. According to Ashcroft spokesperson Taylor Gross, "Ashcroft answered Sen. Kennedy's questions as to how he would approach the case when confirmed as U.S. attorney general. His answers during the hearing focused on enforcing the law, and he will examine the case with DOJ officials working on the case when confirmed." Sorkin had written Ashcroft on behalf of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and other health groups, expressing concerns about congressional efforts to "interfere" with funding for the lawsuit (Koeffler, CongressDaily/A.M., 1/23).
In other U.S. tobacco news, HHS Secretary-designate Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) said that he will sell his stock in tobacco giant Philip Morris Co., USA Today reports. Thompson, who the Senate likely will confirm today, will sell the stocks to avoid "any appearance of a conflict of interest," spokesperson Kevin Keane said Tuesday. According to Keane, Thompson "was unaware" of his Philip Morris holdings because his stock portfolio "was held in trust and managed for him." He added, "The governor is very much antismoking, particularly with youth." Thompson also held stock in several other companies, including drugmaker Merck & Co. However, the Philip Morris stock proves especially "sensitive" because of the "smoking-and-health issue" and Thompson's likely future position as HHS secretary, the nation's "top promoter of healthy living." Antismoking groups also have "complained" that Thompson accepted $70,000 in contributions from Philip Morris during the past seven years and took three trips abroad with company executives. "Thompson is in Philip Morris' pocket," Jack Lohman, director of the Wisconsin Initiative on Smoking and Health, said. He added that although Thompson backed four tax increases on tobacco and approved a ban on smoking in the state Capitol, he "virtually rewrote the budget to prevent municipalities from making compliance checks on selling kids tobacco." However, Keane argued that Thompson vetoed legislation which would have allowed local governments to establish their own compliance checks and instead supported a "uniform statewide standard" that allows minors to participate in "sting operations" to "catch merchants who sell tobacco to underage buyers." Based on Thompson's financial disclosure form, the value of his Philip Morris stock ranges between $15,000 and $50,000 (Benedetto, USA Today, 1/24).