TOBACCO: Senate Panel Removes Obstacle to Federal Suit
A Senate appropriations panel brokered a compromise yesterday that "would allow the Justice Department to pursue a suit against the tobacco industry," but that would not allow any money to be specifically set aside for the prosecution of the case. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH), chair of the subcommittee in charge of the Justice Department's budget, had inserted into the appropriations bill language that stated, "No funds are provided for tobacco litigation" and, "No funds are provided for expert witnesses called to provide testimony in tobacco litigation." Calling Gregg's action "a totally irresponsible surrender of our fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers," Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL) prepared to offer an amendment to eliminate the language. He said, "Any congressional attempt to undermine or micromanage the Justice Department's authority in this matter is an early Christmas present for the tobacco industry and a huge taxpayer rip-off" (Klein, Media General/Tampa Tribune, 7/23). The Washington Post reports that "a vote was avoided when Gregg, Graham and Democratic Sens. Tom Harkin (IA), Richard Durbin (IL) and Ernest Hollings (SC) agreed to eliminate the restriction" on the $35.3 billion spending bill (Torry/Dewar, 7/23). "Nothing in the bill or the report language prohibits the department from using generally appropriated funds ... to pursue this litigation," Gregg said for the record. Durbin said, "I want to make certain that the tobacco companies know that they have lost and the American taxpayers have won. We are not going to accept any half-hearted compromise." But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Jim Wootton said, "If the Department of Justice sues tobacco, then there's no business that's really safe from revenue-raising lawsuits."
In order to proceed, Justice would have to win another source of funding from Congress. Attorney General Janet Reno said, "I don't do 'what ifs.' I think we can work with Congress to make sure that we can still proceed" (Meckler, AP/Nando Times, 7/22). White House domestic policy adviser Bruce Reed said Justice "has made real progress in preparing the suit. They've got their best lawyers on the case, and it's in good shape" (Post, 7/23). Cass Wheeler, CEO of the American Heart Association, said, "It's a green light for justice against the tobacco industry. After decades of lies and deceit from the tobacco industry, it's clear that the time for this suit has come" (release, 7/22).