Just days before beginning the largest civil racketeering trial in U.S. history, the Justice Department held a press briefing to tout the strengths of its $280 billion case against the tobacco industry.
Staging news conferences for high-profile cases is an age-old tradition in the Justice Department. Attorney General John Ashcroft and other high-ranking DOJ officials routinely go before the cameras to laud the latest terrorist capture or money-laundering bust. DOJ trial lawyers use the publicity to make a name for themselves before a national press corps and to put pressure on defendants, juries, and judges.
Despite the size of the case, there has been a notable absence of public comment from Ashcroft or his deputies as the tobacco trial draws near. The Sept. 13 briefing was for “background” information only, meaning reporters could not name any of the DOJ officials who spoke.
Tobacco lawyers, lobbyists and public relations specialists say the lack of public support from high-ranking officials signals the political sensitivity within the Justice Department and the Bush administration regarding the case. Justice may not be willing to dismiss the action, but it will not publicly embrace it either.
“Tobacco remains a politically sensitive and explosive issue,” says a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, who asked not to be named. “If you’re the administration, aren’t you better off letting it play itself out?”
The trial in United States v. Philip Morris USA Inc., et al., is scheduled to begin today before Judge Gladys Kessler of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The bench trial is expected to last at least six months and include nearly 300 witnesses. The government is seeking a host of court-ordered reforms and wants the tobacco industry to disgorge $280 billion in profits.
Without Ashcroft or another official to lead the charge, the public face of the government’s tobacco case has been left to anti-smoking advocates such as the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and the Tobacco Control Resource Center. At a press briefing last week, William Corr, executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, expressed his confidence in the DOJ tobacco team — led by career DOJ lawyer Sharon Eubanks and made up of roughly 35 attorneys — but reminded reporters that the Bush administration has not fully supported the litigation.
“The record of this administration is not good on this,” Corr said, referring to efforts by the Bush administration to settle the case in 2001. “We are hopeful now, at trial, the case will proceed without any interference [from the administration].”
Meanwhile, the Altria Group Inc. — parent company of Philip Morris — has mounted a full-scale public relations assault on the suit. Since the case was filed five years ago, Altria has been holding regular press conferences to declare the government’s case a weak and expensive effort to get the tobacco industry to change the way it sells cigarettes. Altria officials claim many of those reforms were already agreed upon and implemented when it settled a massive civil suit brought by several states in 1998.