DOJ Ethics Office To Investigate Allegations Regarding Racketeering Case Penalties
The professional ethics office of the Department of Justice will investigate whether "political concerns played a role" in DOJ's decision to reduce the penalty it is seeking against the tobacco industry in the government's civil racketeering lawsuit against several large U.S. tobacco companies, the Washington Post reports (Leonnig, Washington Post, 6/14).
During closing arguments of DOJ's lawsuit last week, DOJ attorney Stephen Brody said that the government is asking for $10 billion to fund a five-year smoking-cessation program, rather than an anticipated $130 billion over 25 years. The $130 billion was recommended during testimony by Michael Fiore, a medical professor and director of a tobacco research center at the University of Wisconsin who chaired the HHS Interagency Committee on Smoking and Health subcommittee on tobacco cessation. Fiore's testimony was widely considered to represent the amount DOJ was seeking.
The Post last week reported that sources and government officials close to the case said the DOJ lawyers wanted to request $130 billion but were pressured by leaders in the attorney general's office to reduce the request. The Post also reported that DOJ lawyers asked two of their own witnesses to tone down recommendations about penalties for the tobacco companies. Similarly, the Los Angeles Times reported that an unnamed person familiar with the situation said the change was "forced on the tobacco team by higher-level, politically appointed officials" from DOJ, including Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum.
McCallum did not confirm or deny that he ordered DOJ attorneys to cut the smoking-cessation proposal, adding that the reduced figure was consistent with an earlier appeals court ruling stating that DOJ could not request past profits to be included in damage awards.
In response to the reports, Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) in a letter to DOJ Inspector General Glenn Fine requested that the department determine whether McCallum or any other politically appointed DOJ official improperly influenced the case. A separate letter signed by Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) made the same request. Lautenberg also has called for a congressional hearing on DOJ's handling of the case (California Healthline, 6/10).
In response to the lawmakers' request, Fine said in a letter to Waxman and Meehan that allegations of political interference were not within the jurisdiction of DOJ's Office of the Inspector General (Washington Post, 6/14). However, he added that DOJ's Professional Responsibility Advisory Office, which addresses possible ethical issues and wrongdoing by DOJ lawyers, has agreed to "initiate an investigation" into the lawmakers' allegations.
In response, Waxman said, "I am encouraged that these serious allegations will be investigated" (Lichtblau, New York Times, 6/14). Lautenberg added, "The administration's cave-in to the tobacco lobby was nothing short of legal malpractice. I'm glad the Department of Justice will investigate this sellout of the American people" (AP/Los Angeles Times, 6/14).