- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2000

Attorney General Janet Reno asked Congress yesterday for $23 million to bring the tobacco industry to trial on racketeering charges, saying the government would "not be able to proceed" without the money.
In urging lawmakers not to allow politics to "interfere with the conduct of litigation," Miss Reno said at her weekly press briefing it was "imperative we move forward to protect the American people and to give them their day in court."
President Clinton also weighed in on the matter yesterday, asking Congress in a statement to "reject special protections for big tobacco and provide the funds necessary to allow this case to be decided in the courtroom, not the back room."
But several Republicans and tobacco-state legislators have sought to deny funding for the case, although the House voted 215-183 in June to allow up to $12 million in transfers to the Justice Department for the litigation from the departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, and Health and Human Services. The pending bill requires congressional committee approval for any such transfer.
Capitol Hill sources yesterday described the $23 million figure as new, saying Justice did not request any specific amount for the litigation. One of the sources said the $23 million figure had never come up.
The Senate Appropriations Committee is considering changes to a separate pending bill that would set a specific dollar amount, but has not moved on the matter. The government has estimated the case could cost taxpayers as much as $40 million this year and next.
Yesterday, Miss Reno criticized the requirement that Justice make a request each time funds are needed. She said that rule, which she described as "innocuous" at face value, "could be used to allow politics to interfere with the conduct of litigation."
"The decision should not be about politics. It is about law, and on this, the court has spoken. The American people should have their day in court," she said.
Assistant Attorney General David Ogden, head of the department's civil division, also argued that those provisions would inject politics into funding decisions.
"Under the current situation, there is a very limited amount of money, approximately $1.8 million, in the civil division's base, that could be used for tobacco litigation. Beyond that, there's no money provided," he said.
"What needs to happen is that there be a direct appropriation of the $23 million that we need to pursue the case," he said. "In addition to that, it's extremely important that these unnecessary constraints on the ability of the executive branch to manage litigation be removed as well."
On Sept. 28, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler dismissed half of the claims in the department's tobacco lawsuit, but said the government could pursue accusations by the department under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act that the tobacco companies deceived the public about the dangers of smoking.
Miss Reno said it was time for prosecutors to "move forward."
"It gives us the opportunity to seek equitable relief to change the way tobacco companies do business, to protect America's children and to require the tobacco companies to right the wrongs of the past," Miss Reno said. "In addition, the United States may seek to recover the tobacco companies' ill-gotten gains which … are likely to run into the billions of dollars."
Justice sued the tobacco companies last year to recover $20 billion spent annually by Medicare and other health plans to treat smoking-related illnesses.
Prosecutors said they were entitled to seek payments dating back nearly a half-century, when the Justice Department says cigarette makers began conspiring to mislead the public about the dangers of smoking.
Mr. Ogden said the case would focus on "an organized, coordinated, fraudulent plan the tobacco and cigarette companies put into effect in 1953 and have maintained … through a whole variety of communications, deceive the American people about the health effects of tobacco."
"We've only learned relatively recently how long the tobacco companies have known of the devastating health consequences of cigarettes and cigarette smoking. Under federal law, these constitute … an organized course of mail fraud, which is a violation of the criminal laws of the United States."

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