Justice Department Might Reassign Suit Lawyers
Attorney General John Ashcroft might remove some of the Justice Department attorneys working on the federal government's "landmark" lawsuit against the tobacco industry because of concerns with their performance, the Washington Post reports. The news comes one day after the Post reported that the tobacco litigation team had warned Ashcroft in an internal memo dated March 12 that they might have to abandon the case unless they received a "dramatic" funding increase. The Bush administration has proposed $1.8 million in the 2002 budget for the litigation's staff costs but did not include money for "continued legal work" on the case. According to the memo, team members need $57.6 million to pursue the case. Team members already have begun to consider a voluntary dismissal motion that could be filed as early as next month, the Post reports (Eggen/Kaufman, Washington Post, 4/26).
The Post article about the memo "infuriat[ed]" Ashcroft's aides, who "decided to disclose their discussions about overhauling the task force, which they said had been under way for weeks," the Wall Street Journal reports. One unnamed senior department official said the task force "has done a poor job and has created a lack of confidence by the leadership of the Justice Department." The aide pointed to U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler's ruling last year that threw out parts of the original lawsuit as "evidence of [the task force's] poor performance." The 1999 lawsuit alleges that the tobacco industry mislead the public for decades about the health risks of smoking (Cloud, Wall Street Journal, 4/26). The government was seeking to recover billions of dollars to cover the costs of treating sick smokers under federal health programs. In her ruling, Kessler threw out the health costs claims but left intact charges that the industry engaged in a racketeering conspiracy. The trial is set to commence in summer 2003. Department lawyers are trying to reinstate the health care cost claims (Washington Post, 4/26).
Ashcroft's aides said Ashcroft, who opposed the lawsuit as a senator, has not yet decided how to pursue the litigation. They added that if he decides to continue the case, the Bush administration would find funding just as the Clinton administration did last year. Justice Department spokesperson Susan Dryden said, "The case is proceeding in the normal course and we will continue to evaluate it." But many anti-tobacco activists and congressional Democrats have said they expect the administration to abandon the lawsuit. David Carle, spokesperson for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said, "Clearly what they're doing is laying out a budget basis for making a policy decision to end the tobacco litigation" (Wall Street Journal, 4/26). Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) added, "If they are changing personnel to continue and gear up the lawsuit, that's one thing. But if it's a way to stop the lawsuit, then the tobacco companies have won a major victory with this administration" (Washington Post, 4/26). Ashcroft, who is due to appear before a Senate subcommittee hearing today on his department's budget for next year, likely will "face tough questions" about the litigation, Newsday reports (Brune, Newsday, 4/26).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.