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Context of 'March 22, 2007: Prosecutor Says Bush Appointees Interfered with Tobacco Case'

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Sharon Eubanks.Sharon Eubanks. [Source: Washington Post]Justice Department prosecutors appointed by the Bush administration interfered in the landmark lawsuit against tobacco companies, says the leader of the prosecution team, Sharon Eubanks. Eubanks says that Bush loyalists in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s 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 US smokers. Eubanks says that a supervisor demanded that she and her trial team drop recommendations 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 ordered her to read verbatim a closing argument they had rewritten for her. “The political people were pushing the buttons and ordering us to say what we said,” Eubanks says. “And because of that, we failed to zealously represent the interests of the American public.” Eubanks, a 22-year veteran at the Justice Department, says three political appointees were responsible for the last-minute shifts in the government’s tobacco case in June 2005: then-Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum, then-Assistant Attorney General Peter Keisler, and Keisler’s deputy at the time, Dan Meron. The sudden strategy change sparked an uproar in Congress, and led to an inquiry by the Justice Department. Government witnesses said they had been asked to change testimony, and one expert withdrew from the case. Government lawyers also announced that they were rolling back a proposed penalty against the industry from $130 billion to $10 billion. Justice Department officials say that there was no political meddling in the case, an assertion supported by the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility. Eubanks, who left the department in December 2005, has not spoken publicly about the case until now. She says she is now coming forward because she is concerned about what she calls the “overwhelming politicization” of the department demonstrated by the controversy over the firing of eight US attorneys. Lawyers from Justice’s civil rights division have made similar claims about being overruled by supervisors in the past. Eubanks says Congress should investigate the matter along with the US attorney firings. “Political interference is happening at Justice across the department,” she says. “When decisions are made now in the Bush attorney general’s office, politics is the primary consideration.… The rule of law goes out the window.” US District Judge Gladys Kessler ruled in August 2006 that tobacco companies violated civil racketeering laws by conspiring for decades to deceive the public about the dangers of their product. She ordered the companies to make major changes in the way cigarettes are marketed. But she said she could not order the monetary penalty proposed by the government. Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids was one of the witnesses whom Eubanks asked to change his testimony. Yesterday, he said he found her account to be “the only reasonable explanation” for what transpired. Eubanks says that she was particularly distressed when McCallum, Keisler, and Meron ordered her to read word for word a closing argument they had rewritten. The statement explained the validity of seeking a $10 billion penalty. “I couldn’t even look at the judge,” she says. [Washington Post, 3/22/2007]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Sharon Eubanks, Robert McCallum, Office of Professional Responsibility, Matthew Myers, Peter Keisler, Alberto R. Gonzales, Gladys Kessler, Dan Meron

Timeline Tags: US Health Care

Jon Kyl.Jon Kyl. [Source: ViewImages.com]The Senate passes by unanimous consent the Inspector General Reform Act of 2008, a law designed to boost the independence of the inspectors general of various federal agencies. However, the law only passes after Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) adds an amendment that deletes a key provision giving the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) jurisdiction to investigate misconduct allegations against Justice Department attorneys and senior officials. OIGs for all other agencies can, under this law, investigate misconduct within their entire agency. The Justice Department’s OIG must now refer allegations against department officials to the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), which is not statutorily independent and reports directly to the attorney general and deputy attorney general. A House bill passed last October has no such requirement. Usually a bill with such a discrepancy would be referred to a joint House-Senate conference to resolve the difference, but Congressional sources say in this case there will be no such conference; the House is likely to accept the Senate version. Many observers believe that the Kyl amendment was added at the White House’s behest after President Bush had threatened to veto the House bill. Representative James Cooper (D-TN), the sponsor of the House bill, says: “The Kyl amendment took out a lot of the substance of the bill, but it didn’t kill the bill. I think we should lock in these improvements and leave to a future Congress further improvements.” Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, agrees, saying that the Justice Department issue is a “lingering problem that has got to be addressed.” There is a “clear conflict, a real problem,” with the OPR investigating allegations against the officials to whom it reports, she says. Former Justice Department Inspector General Michael Bromwich says that the Kyl amendment sets the Justice Department apart from all other agencies. The amendment gives Justice Department lawyers what Bromwich calls a “privileged status” to be reviewed by the OPR, which lacks the OIG’s independence. Bromwich says that the amendment “either has to be based on a misunderstanding of what the IG is seeking or on an attempt by people in the department to keep certain kinds of investigations away from the IG for reasons they should articulate.” The issue garnered public attention when former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales directed OPR to investigate the firings of eight US attorneys, a matter directly involving Gonzales and his deputies. Inspector General Glenn Fine objected, and eventually the Justice Department’s OIG and OPR agreed to a joint investigation. “The whole bill was held up because of this issue,” Brian says. “We hope the Justice Department problem is not forgotten now that the legislation is passing.” [National Law Journal, 5/5/2008]

Entity Tags: Office of the Inspector General (DOJ), US Department of Justice, Office of Professional Responsibility, Project on Government Oversight, Michael Bromwich, James Cooper, Inspector General Reform Act of 2008, Alberto R. Gonzales, George W. Bush, Glenn Fine, Jon Kyl, Danielle Brian

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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