Reno Asks for Help With Tobacco Suit
WASHINGTON (AP) - The Justice Department will have to drop its massive lawsuit against the tobacco industry unless Congress appropriates $23 million to pay for it, Attorney General Janet Reno said Thursday.
``Without that money, we will not be able to proceed,'' Reno said. ``And I think it is imperative that we move forward to protect the American people and to give them their day in court.''
So far, amid opposition to the lawsuit from Republicans and tobacco-state legislators, neither the House nor Senate bill would provide adequate funding to continue the civil lawsuit that could force the industry to relinquish billions of dollars in profits earned since 1954, Reno and her aides said.
The government claims the industry misled the government and the public about the addictiveness of nicotine and targeted children in its marketing. The industry has denied the claims.
The lawsuit recently survived an industry effort to have U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler throw it out of court. Instead, Kessler narrowed the government's case by saying it could not recover federal money spent on health care for Americans with tobacco-related illnesses, but she said the government could still seek billions under a racketeering statute.
``You can't litigate a case against an organized and extremely well-financed defendant without minimal levels of funding,'' said Assistant Attorney General David Ogden, head of the department's civil division. ``And we've looked at what the minimum is, and that's what we're asking for. If we don't get it, we simply can't proceed.''
Ogden said $23 million would be needed in fiscal 2001, which began Sunday, up from the $13 million spent last fiscal year because the number of documents to be processed would escalate sharply.
Ogden said the money would be used to gather and analyze millions of pages of tobacco industry documents, some dating back to 1954, and an unknown number of government documents that the industry wants to see. The judge hopes to begin trial in January 2003.
A bill that passed the House this summer would allow the departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services (news - web sites) to transfer $12 million to the Justice budget to help finance the lawsuit. But the House version of the Justice budget contains restrictions on these and other money transfers that would require each to be individually approved by congressional committees, so the civil division could not count on getting that money, according to a senior Justice official, who requested anonymity.
Reno said these transfer restrictions, ``while innocuous on their face, could be used to allow politics to interfere with the conduct of litigation.''
A bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee would forbid any transfers at all.
Reno urged the Congress to back a proposal by Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., that would put a specific dollar amount for the lawsuit into the Justice budget. Officials said Hollings planned to offer this as an amendment on the Senate floor.
In her ruling a week ago, Kessler noted: ``a significant portion of the government's case ... will go forward. The extent of (the tobacco companies') potential liability remains, in the estimation of both parties, in the billions of dollars.''
Ogden refused to estimate Thursday what amount of profits the government might try to force the companies to disgorge. He also said government lawyers were still studying whether to appeal Kessler's ruling, either now or at the end of the trial.