- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 20, 2001

Attorney General John Ashcroft is looking to settle a bitterly disputed lawsuit against the tobacco industry and has assembled a team of high-level department lawyers to bring the landmark case to a close.
Bush administration officials said yesterday that Mr. Ashcroft has told congressional leaders that three career lawyers within the department will attempt to reach a settlement.
Critics of Big Tobacco quickly denounced the move as a political payoff for campaign contributions, a charge that industry spokesmen denied, saying there have been no industry-administration discussions on ending the lawsuit.
The administration sources said the lawyers met yesterday for the first time following a recommendation by acting Assistant Attorney General Stuart Schiffer that a settlement team be formed. Mr. Schiffer, who heads the departments civil division, will continue to oversee a litigation team even while the department attempts to settle the case, the officials said.
Filed in September 1999 by Attorney General Janet Reno, the suit seeks to recover $20 billion a year in the cost of federal health care plans for smoking-related illnesses. Endorsed by President Clinton, the suit wants to force the tobacco industry into surrendering what it called "ill-gotten" profits obtained through fraud and deceit in the sale of tobacco products beginning in the 1950s.
President Bush was critical of the suit during the 2000 campaign, saying at one point he was "troubled by the Justice Departments reversal" of a previous position that there was no merit for a federal lawsuit. He said shortly after the suit was filed he hoped "the era of big government is not replaced by the era of big lawsuits."
Bush administration sources said the Justice Department has concerns over the strength of the case and believed a settlement was in order.
Last year, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler, who is hearing the suit, delivered a major setback to the department when she dismissed two counts that would have allowed the department to recover expenses related to sick smokers.
Some Justice Department lawyers and others have suggested the budget request for $1.8 million to continue litigation in the case was insufficient.
Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids, accused the Bush administration of talking settlement in an attempt to disguise the fact that it did not budget enough money to pursue the lawsuit.
"Caught in its first effort to kill the federal tobacco lawsuit by denying the necessary funding, the Bush administration is now reported to be seeking to settle the case," he said. "The American people should be concerned that the administration is seeking yet another way to let the tobacco industry off the hook for decades of deception and wrongdoing.
"It is especially worrisome that administration officials are weakening the hand of their negotiating team by stating ahead of time that they believe they would lose in court. No attorney representing a client in good faith prepares for trial by saying they expect to lose, and this statement is a tremendous disservice to the governments client — the American people," he said.
He said the tobacco industry made more than $8.3 million in campaign contributions during the last election, 83 percent of it to Republicans and that "killing the federal tobacco lawsuit" was a political decision.
John R. Garrison, head of the American Lung Association, cautioned Mr. Bush and Mr. Ashcroft not to cut a weak deal with the tobacco industry, which he said was responsible for the death of more than 400,000 Americans each year.
"The case against the tobacco industry is strong, and American juries are holding them accountable. The Bush administration should not let Big Tobacco off the hook," he said.
"Under no circumstances should the Bush administration consider granting immunity or limits on liability to the tobacco industry."
Defendants include Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds , British American Tobacco PLCs Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., Loews Corp.s Lorillard Tobacco Co. Inc., Vector Group Ltd.s Liggett Group Inc., the Council for Tobacco Research U.S.A. Inc. and the Tobacco Institute Inc.
New York-based Philip Morris said in a statement that the company had not been approached about a settlement in the case, "nor have we approached anyone else about settlement of this lawsuit. We are not aware of any settlement discussions. We continue to believe the case is without merit."
Steve Watson, vice president for external affairs with Lorillard in Greensboro, N.C., also said his firm had no information on any pending settlement discussions "with other companies within the industry or with the government."
Mr. Ashcroft has long been a proponent of a settlement in the case, first proposing a negotiated resolution while serving as the Republican U.S. senator from Missouri.
In April, the attorney general told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee he had made no decision on the pending suit, and the Justice Departments 2002 budget request for the case was "exactly the same budget request as was fashioned and submitted" by Miss Reno.
Giving no clue of any pending settlement decision, he said a $1.8 million budget request would allow the department to "continue the case."
"The Department of Justice is proceeding with the case, and I support the departments position" he told Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, South Carolina Democrat, when asked whether Justice ought to proceed with the suit. "I think we have made the right kind of request, and have the same identical structure which my predecessor had asked for in the appropriation.
"And so the capacity to proceed with the case exists in the department in the same [way] it would have in previous settings, and would have in this setting had the election been different," he said, adding there were a number of issues pending in the case and a final decision would depend on what federal courts might rule in those pending matters."
The Clinton Justice Department shut down a five-year criminal investigation of the tobacco industry without charges with its filing of the civil lawsuit. The suit was based on a settlement the tobacco industry reached with the states. The industry agreed to pay the states more than $240 billion over 25 years.

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