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Prosecutor in tobacco case alleges meddling

March 22, 2007|From the Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The former leader of the Justice Department team that prosecuted a landmark lawsuit against tobacco companies said Wednesday that Bush administration political appointees repeatedly ordered her to take steps that weakened the government's racketeering case.

Sharon Eubanks said Bush loyalists in Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales' office began micromanaging the team's strategy in the final weeks of the 2005 trial, to the detriment of the government's claim that the industry had conspired to lie to U.S. smokers.

She said a supervisor demanded that she and her trial team drop arguments that tobacco executives be removed from their corporate positions as a possible penalty. He and two others instructed her to tell key witnesses to change their testimony. And they ordered Eubanks to read verbatim from a closing argument they rewrote for her, she said.

"The political people were pushing the buttons and ordering us to say what we said. And because of that, we failed to zealously represent the interests of the American public," she said.

Eubanks, who served for 22 years as a lawyer at Justice, said three political appointees were responsible for the last-minute shifts in the government's tobacco case in June 2005: then-Associate Atty. Gen. Robert McCallum; then-Assistant Atty. Gen. Peter D. Keisler; and his deputy at the time, Dan Meron.

News reports on the strategy changes caused an uproar in Congress and sparked a Justice Department inquiry. Government witnesses said they were asked to change testimony and one expert withdrew from the case. Government lawyers also said they were reducing a proposed penalty against the industry from $130 billion to $10 billion.

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