Ashcroft Won't Ask for Tobacco Money
WASHINGTON (AP) - Attorney General John Ashcroft said Thursday he doesn't plan to ask for extra money to support the government's lawsuit against tobacco companies, despite a request from Justice Department lawyers for an additional $57 million.
Ashcroft, in his first appearance before Congress as attorney general, denied that he was planning to drop the lawsuit or transfer lawyers off the case. ``I have not made any indication about any reassignment of any attorneys,'' Ashcroft told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee. ``I have not made a decision about the case.''
The Bush administration has requested $1.8 million to pay salaries and staff costs for the tobacco litigation team in the department's civil division, Justice Department officials say. Department budget writers did not seek money for legal work, such as gathering and analyzing millions of documents that tobacco companies have asked to see, leading critics to wonder whether the litigation is being abandoned.
President Bush (news - web sites) on Wednesday expressed reservations about continuing the lawsuit, opposed by Republicans and members of Congress from tobacco-producing states. He said he has not decided whether to drop the suit.
Senators who favor the litigation immediately wrote letters to Ashcroft asking him to keep after the tobacco companies.
``The tobacco industry continues to evade its responsibility for its actions,'' said Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Dick Durbin of Illinois in a letter to Ashcroft Thursday. ``We should not compound the damage by relinquishing our federal responsibility to enforce the law and protect the citizens of this nation.''
In a March 12 memo from department lawyers to Ashcroft, the lawyers estimated they need more than $57 million this year to keep working on the case, The Washington Post reported.
But Ashcroft said he would stick to the original $1.8 million, the same funding request that Congress received from former Attorney General Janet Reno for 2001 and 2002.
``The Department of Justice (news - web sites) is proceeding with the case and I support the department's position,'' Ashcroft said. ``I think we have made the right kind of request. It has the same, identical structure which my predecessor had asked for in appropriations. So the capacity to proceed with the case exists at the department in the same way it would have in the previous settings, and as it would have had the election been different.''
Ashcroft found a supporter in Sen. Ernest Hollings (news - bio - voting record), D-S.C., who said $57 million was too much for the government to add in. ``They are incompetent if they think it takes that much money to make a case,'' Hollings said.
Congress has previously redirected $11 million from other federal agencies to pay for the litigation and can do the same this year, a Justice Department spokeswoman said Wednesday.
The Justice Department lawsuit, filed in September 1999, accused big tobacco companies of putting profits before health by concealing data showing that nicotine is addictive and that smoking causes disease. The government seeks to recover hundreds of millions of dollars in medical costs borne by federal health programs over the years to pay for smoking-related illnesses.
Tobacco companies have denied the charges.