Reno: Bills Can End Tobacco Suit
WASHINGTON (AP) - The Justice Department will drop its multibillion-dollar lawsuit against the tobacco industry if the House approves legislation forbidding other agencies to pick up some of the cost, Attorney General Janet Reno said Monday.
Saying her agency could not afford the legal costs, Reno said stopping other departments from supporting the suit would prevent the government from reaping a bonanza similar to the $246 billion settlement the states have reached with cigarette companies. The federal lawsuit seeks to recover billions spent by Medicare and other federal programs to treat illnesses caused by smoking.
``Some members of Congress are now trying to shut America's taxpayers out of the courtroom,'' Reno said as the House prepared for a pivotal vote on the issue. ``Without these critical funds, we will have no choice but to seek to dismiss this litigation.''
Reno's remarks came as the House began debating a $101.1 billion measure financing veterans, housing, environment and space programs for fiscal 2001, which begins Oct. 1. The bill would block plans by the Department of Veterans Affairs to transfer $4 million from its medical care account, which includes legal costs, to the Justice Department for the suit.
``These funds are precious and dear,'' said Rep. James Walsh, R-N.Y., chief author of the spending bill. ``Let the Justice Department take it out of their own hide. That's their job. They're the lawyers.''
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said the bill language was an effort to protect cigarette companies, whom Waxman has spent years fighting.
``There's no question who is behind this rider,'' he said, referring to the legislative language. ``It is the tobacco industry.''
Reno's earlier comments, delivered with lawmakers and leaders of veterans and health-care groups at her side, upped the political ante in the government's confrontation with an industry that many politicians are reluctant to be seen as helping. The congressional and presidential elections are less than five months away.
Several House and Senate spending bills would either prohibit other agencies from giving money to the Justice Department for the suit or simply fail to provide money for the case.
Lawmakers supporting the ban on helping finance the lawsuit found themselves opposing the powerful veterans lobby. In a letter distributed at Reno's news conference, four veterans groups called it ``inappropriate for Congress to attempt to undermine this litigation by manipulating the resources needed to support this action.''
The groups were AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America and Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States.
The lawsuit is expected to cost the government $26.2 million next year alone, said White House budget chief Jack Lew.
Under current plans, the Justice Department would pay for $14.2 million of that, he said. The remainding $12 million would be divided evenly among the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Defense, and Health and Human Services.
The Justice Department filed its lawsuit last September. At the time, Reno said federal health plans pay more than $20 billion annually treating smoking related diseases, while kill 400,000 Americans a year.
The government says that for 45 years, tobacco companies conspired to mislead the public about the health perils of smoking.
Industry lawyers have called the lawsuit ``blatantly political'' and ``the height of hypocrisy'' because the government warned the public of smoking dangers in the 1960s. Tobacco companies have also challenged the government's right to recover payments it has made under Medicare.
The money would be transferred to the Justice Department under a 1995 law that allows it to be reimbursed for legal costs by other agencies.
A separate House spending bill would limit that 1995 law to only suits in which the government is defending itself, not aggressive actions like the tobacco case. Rogers has said the five-year-old law, passed when the Defense Department was being sued after canceling a contract for a Navy fither plane, was meant to apply only to such situations.
A Senate spending bill would repeal the 1995 law.
Lew said the tobacco suit had a $13.8 million price tag, $5.8 million of which came from the Justice Department. The rest came from the three other agencies.