Cozy with Big Tobacco, too

Senior Justice Department officials -- one with close ties to the president -- take the bite out of a major five-year case against the industry.

By Mark Follman
Published June 16, 2005 12:58PM (EDT)

That the Bush administration is in bed with Big Oil is already well known, but what about Big Tobacco? From today's New York Times:

"Senior Justice Department officials overrode the objections of career lawyers running the government's tobacco racketeering trial and ordered them to reduce the penalties sought at the close of the nine-month trial by $120 billion, internal documents and interviews show. The trial team argued that the move would be seen as politically motivated and legally groundless.

"'We do not want politics to be perceived as the underlying motivation, and that is certainly a risk if we make adjustments in our remedies presentation that are not based on evidence,' the two top lawyers for the trial team, Sharon Y. Eubanks and Stephen D. Brody, wrote in a memorandum on May 30 to Associate Attorney General Robert D. McCallum that was reviewed by The New York Times. The two lawyers said the lower penalty recommendation ordered by Mr. McCallum would weaken the department's position in any possible settlement with the industry and 'create an incentive for defendants to engage in future misconduct by making the misconduct profitable.'"

There's more on the man who ordered the lower penalty recommendation for the case, which had broad ramifications for the industry and was more than five years in the making:

"The newly disclosed documents make clear that the decision was made after weeks of tumult in the department and accusations from lawyers on the tobacco team that Mr. McCallum and other political appointees had effectively undermined their case. Mr. McCallum, No. 3 at the department, is a close friend of President Bush from their days as Skull & Bones members at Yale, and he was also a partner at an Atlanta law firm, Alston & Bird, that has done legal work for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, part of Reynolds American, a defendant in the case."

If the thinking of McCallum and others behind the move remains somewhat engimatic -- "This was a decision that was made on the merits of the case and that strictly followed the law," a Justice Department spokesman said -- political contributions from the tobacco industry might also provide a clue to their motivations. As the Times notes, the industry gave $2.7 million to Republicans last year, versus $938,000 that went to Democrats.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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