U.S. Justice Official Pressing on with Tobacco Suit
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Justice Department official on Wednesday told skeptical Democratic senators the federal lawsuit against the tobacco industry was proceeding on track without interference or undermining from Bush administration officials.
Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, who called for Wednesday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, cited several statements by Bush administration officials that he said suggested uncertainty or a lack of confidence in the landmark racketeering case, filed in September 1999 during the Clinton administration.
But Acting Assistant Attorney General Stuart Schiffer told the panel that his tobacco litigation team had been moving ahead, without any interference. ``The case is proceeding,'' he said. ``I've been given what I regard as unfettered discretion.''
Schiffer said he expected to increase staffing levels to about 38 people by next month and to devote about $44 million to the lawsuit in fiscal 2002.
Schiffer is a career prosecutor with nearly 40 years experience at the department, but his current position is a temporary one, and President Bush's appointee will take over shortly.
Durbin was very critical of the department's management of the tobacco case under Attorney General John Ashcroft.
``The Department of Justice's management of this case seems unprofessional at best. At worst, they are killing this lawsuit and don't have the political courage to admit it publicly,'' Durbin said.
The tobacco case has been controversial from the start. The Justice Department started with a two-pronged approach, suing both to recover smoking-related health costs and under an unusual interpretation of federal racketeering laws. A federal judge already threw out the health costs part of the case, and legal analysts differ about applying racketeering statutes to the tobacco industry.
David Ogden, who worked on the tobacco litigation during the Clinton administration, testified he believed the government had a strong case because of the tobacco industry's ''long-standing conspiracy to defraud the American public.''
But another witness, Morgan Stanley tobacco analyst David Adelman, said he did not think the suit posed a ``significant legal threat'' to the industry. ``I believe that the lawsuit will ultimately be dismissed or otherwise resolved at little financial cost to the defendants,'' he told committee lawmakers.