The judge overseeing a landmark racketeering lawsuit against the tobacco industry has called government and tobacco lawyers to her court Monday to discuss the government's proposed penalties against the industry and the status of the case, according to court records and interviews.
Late Thursday, the Justice Department filed a document under seal with U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler indicating that it would appear in court on Monday, a previously unscheduled appearance.
Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said that Kessler, who has presided over the eight-month trial, summoned government lawyers to the meeting. Miller said he did not know the subject.
"We did not request that hearing," he said. "It's Judge Kessler. She asked that the attorneys come in and talk to her."
According to sources close to the case, Kessler has indicated an interest in the government's eleventh-hour reduction of a smoking cessation program it wants the tobacco industry to fund if Kessler rules for the government. During closing arguments June 7, the Justice Department announced that it would seek a $10 billion, five-year stop-smoking program, instead of the $130 billion, 25-year program it had argued for in May and which its own experts had recommended.
Associate Attorney General Robert D. McCallum Jr. said last week that the government's new position came after it concluded it could seek cessation programs only for people who become addicted to tobacco in the future. He cited a February appeals court ruling that the government could not legally force the tobacco industry to pay $280 billion for allegedly ill-gotten past profits from tobacco sales.
Kessler is free to adopt other sanctions, and the two parties still could settle the case.
The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times reported at the time of the announcement that the career trial team had been pressured to reduce the figure by senior political appointees at Justice, particularly McCallum. The New York Times later reported that government trial attorneys had warned McCallum and their bosses in a memo that sharply reducing the figure without a change in evidence would be viewed as a politically motivated decision.
The government alleges that the tobacco industry engaged in a 50-year conspiracy to defraud the public about the dangers and addictiveness of smoking.
Sources close to the case said they expect Monday's session to be closed to the public. The Post sent a letter to Kessler yesterday asking that it be open and that material under seal be made public.
Meanwhile, four senators sent a letter to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales yesterday urging him to remove McCallum and other political appointees from the case. "We believe that it is essential for you . . . to take whatever other steps are necessary to ensure that there is no political interference in the future in this case," they wrote.
At the request of eight lawmakers, Justice's Office of Professional Responsibility has begun an investigation of whether political interference played a part in the penalty reduction.
The defendants in the case are Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., Lowes Corp's Lorillard Tobacco Co., British American Tobacco and Vector Group Ltd.'s Liggett Group.
Staff writer Christopher Lee contributed to this report.