The Justice Department's professional ethics office will investigate whether political concerns played a role in the agency's decision to sharply reduce the penalty it is seeking against the tobacco industry in a landmark lawsuit, an official said yesterday.
Inspector General Glenn A. Fine, in a letter to Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), said allegations of political interference fell outside his office's jurisdiction. But he said that the department's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) would investigate because the assertions involve questions about the professionalism of Justice lawyers.
As they delivered closing arguments last week, Justice Department lawyers announced that they wanted the tobacco industry to pay $10 billion over five years for a smoking-cessation program -- far less than the $130 billion, 25-year effort that a government witness had estimated would be necessary. The announcement prompted six senators and two House members to demand an investigation.
The government contends, in what was once the largest civil racketeering case in U.S. history, that the tobacco industry engaged in a 50-year conspiracy to defraud the public about the dangers and addictiveness of cigarette smoking.
Waxman and Meehan requested a probe based on news reports that political appointees at the Justice Department pressured career lawyers handling the case to seek the lower penalty, and that Justice officials asked at least two government witnesses to soften recommendations for restrictions on industry youth marketing.