The leader of the Justice Department team that prosecuted a landmark lawsuit against tobacco companies said yesterday that Bush administration political appointees repeatedly ordered her to take steps that weakened the government's racketeering case.Of course it's all denied by Gonzales' crew. Would you expect them to say anything else? Their credibility is strained, however, given the evidence that's rolling out and their flimsy denials that any political considerations played a role in the ouster of the fired U.S. attorneys.
Sharon Y. Eubanks said Bush loyalists in Attorney General Alberto R. 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 U.S. smokers.
She said 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 they ordered Eubanks to read verbatim a closing argument they had rewritten for her, she said.
"The political people were pushing the buttons and ordering us to say what we said," Eubanks said. "And because of that, we failed to zealously represent the interests of the American public."
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 Attorney General Robert D. McCallum, then-Assistant Attorney General Peter Keisler and Keisler's deputy at the time, Dan Meron.
News reports on the strategy changes at the time caused an uproar in Congress and sparked 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 scaling back a proposed penalty against the industry from $130 billion to $10 billion.
High-ranking Justice Department officials said there was no political meddling in the case, and the department's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) concurred after an investigation.
Eubanks, who retired from Justice in December 2005, said she is coming forward now because she is concerned about what she called the "overwhelming politicization" of the department demonstrated by the controversy over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. Lawyers from Justice's civil rights division have made similar claims about being overruled by supervisors in the past.Eggen's original report on the story from 2005 can be found here . The NYTimes had a similar story at the time with reference to Eubanks' disagreement with her political superiors over the reduction of the $130 billion judgment sought to $10 billion and general commentary about a lack of support from the political higher ups. How far could her story really have gone at the time, however, given the internal Justice investigation that turned up nothing and a passive Republican congress unwilling to do anything about the allegations.
Eubanks said Congress should not limit its investigation to the dismissal of the U.S. attorneys.
"Political interference is happening at Justice across the department," she said. "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." (emphasis added)
Times have changed. Now she's willing to talk, it appears. Elections have consequences, as Senator Boxer reminded everyone yesterday.
This investigation of partisan manipulation of the DOJ is going to be big. Huuuuu-ge.