Senior DOJ Officials Sought Smaller Penalties in Lawsuit Against Tobacco Companies, Sources Say
Prior to the Department of Justice attorneys' surprise court request of $10 billion in penalties against tobacco companies in DOJ's civil racketeering suit, senior department officials had ordered the lawyers to reduce their requests to $6 billion, according to sources familiar with the issue, the Los Angeles Times reports (Levin, Los Angeles Times, 6/17).
During closing arguments of DOJ's lawsuit last week, department 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 tobacco researcher Michael Fiore, 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 Washington Post last week reported that sources and government officials close to the case said the DOJ lawyers were pressured by leaders in the attorney general's office to reduce the penalty request and that DOJ lawyers also asked two of their own witnesses to tone down recommendations on penalties. Similarly, the 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 several lawmakers' requests, DOJ's professional ethics office earlier this week agreed to investigate whether political concerns played a role in reducing the penalty request (California Healthline, 6/15).
According to people close to the trial team, government lawyers -- who were "ordered to slash their demand" for $130 billion -- had been planning to ask Judge Gladys Kessler for $16 billion in penalties, but on the morning of closing arguments they were "told to cut the demand still further, to $6 billion," the Times reports.
DOJ lawyers "were cleared" to ask for the $10 billion program "after a heated lunch-hour meeting" on June 7 at which "lawyers told senior staff that they couldn't credibly propose $6 billion," according to sources, the Times reports. A person close to the trial team said it appeared to government lawyers that the "object of the game was to get the number down ... as low as possible" and find a legal explanation later.
DOJ declined to make senior officials available for interviews, and a department spokesperson had no comment (Los Angeles Times, 6/17).
APM's "Marketplace" on Thursday reported on the tobacco trial. The segment includes comments from Matthew Myers, founder and CEO of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, and Robert Weisberg, a professor of law at Stanford University (Tong, "Marketplace," APM, 6/16). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.
Two newspapers on Friday published editorials related to the tobacco litigation. Summaries appear below.
Boston Globe: DOJ's "sudden reversal" in the tobacco trial "has a noxious aroma about it" since "two consecutive administrations from two parties have forced open a record of manipulation and deceit by cigarette companies, corporate conduct leading to the addiction and death of thousands," the Globe writes in an editorial. "Neither side should move to settle or otherwise act on the suit until the investigation" of the issue is complete, the Globe states (Boston Globe, 6/17).
- Wall Street Journal: The "biggest deception in recent days" in the tobacco lawsuit "has been the claim that any of this is about health issues or marketing to children," according to a Journal editorial. The Journal continues, "The lawsuit is all about making government a de facto shareholder in tobacco companies by giving it a bigger chunk of future profits." Taxpayers "might appreciate [DOJ's] willingness to recognize the weakness of its case and bring this matter to an expedited conclusion," the Journal writes (Wall Street Journal, 6/17).