WASHINGTON - After losing an internal battle over huge cuts in a key sanction sought against tobacco companies, a Justice Department attorney stood before a federal judge yesterday to defend the sudden move as legally sound.
As closing arguments wrapped up in the government's massive racketeering case against top cigarette makers, Sharon Eubanks, head of the department's tobacco trial team, told U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler that reduction of a proposed smoking-cessation program - from $130 billion to $10 billion - was dictated by a federal appeals court ruling.
On Wednesday, eight Democrats in the Senate and House asked the Justice Department's inspector general to investigate whether the change stemmed from improper political interference by department higher-ups, including Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum, its No. 3 official.
People close to the situation, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Eubanks and others on the trial team had opposed the shift from a proposed 25-year cessation program, costing more than $5 billion per year, but were overruled.
On Tuesday, when closing arguments began in the 8 1/2 -month trial, Stephen Brody, the deputy director of the trial team, stunned the courtroom by asking Kessler to order a five-year program costing $2 billion annually.
Among career Justice Department lawyers, there had long been "this sense that the administration was never going to let the industry take the kind of hit that might result from an unfettered ability to prosecute the case," a person close to the trial team said. "I think it's really clear from the circumstances here that what happened here in the last few days is not based on the legal merits."
But yesterday, Eubanks defended the reduced program as more likely to pass muster with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which in February limited government sanctions.
Justice Department officials have said that the case was handled properly and that all decisions were made in the interest of getting a successful result.
Some observers said reduction of the government's demand could spur negotiations by narrowing the distance between the two sides on the size of a possible settlement.
With Kessler unlikely to rule for several months, "I'm quite confident you will not see a verdict in this case," said the person close to the trial team. The reduction will make it easier for negotiators "to reach a number that is not too politically offensive."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.