Sen. Durbin places hold on ambassadorship for official over role in tobacco lawsuit |

Sen. Durbin places hold on ambassadorship for official over role in tobacco lawsuit

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON – A Democratic senator is blocking Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum’s nomination to be ambassador to Australia over allegations he improperly influenced the government’s lawsuit against the tobacco industry.In a letter to President Bush, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said it was premature to place McCallum in a new position of trust as long as the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility is conducting an ethics inquiry into the handling of the tobacco case.Any senator may place a hold on an executive branch nominee, an act that can be overcome with 60 votes.The civil racketeering tobacco case, filed during the Clinton administration, alleges the cigarette companies knowingly engaged in deception for decades by denying that nicotine was addictive and downplaying the dangers of smoking.At the end of the tobacco trial last year, the Justice Department bypassed the position of one of its own witnesses and reduced the amount the Bush administration was seeking from the tobacco industry from $130 billion to $10 billion.At that time, McCallum, the No. 3 official at the department, defended the reduction against Democrats and anti-smoking groups who said the Bush administration had caved in to the tobacco lobby.McCallum said lowering the figure was dictated by a court ruling that went against the government.He also said the $10 billion for a smoking cessation program could be increased if court-appointed monitors found the industry committed acts of fraud.The controversy led the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility to launch an ethics inquiry.On Thursday, a spokesman for Durbin, Nadeam Elshami, confirmed that the senator had placed a hold on McCallum’s nomination.”It appears that the dramatic change in course by the Department of Justice was not the result of any new evidence about smoking cessation or the facts of the case but the result of political pressure on the career prosecutors,” Durbin wrote the president. “Senators should be given an independent, unbiased assurance that he did not take any improper actions in the tobacco lawsuit before we are asked to consider his nomination.”U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler has not yet ruled in the tobacco case.Last July, after the department abandoned the $130 billion figure, the judge granted the request of six anti-smoking groups to join the lawsuit, saying the government “no longer adequately represents” their interests.The government witness who proposed the $130 billion, Dr. Michael Fiore, has called it “a tragedy that the Justice Department backed away from their original cessation remedy. Can you imagine what would happen if, as we projected with this plan, 1 million additional smokers quit each year – 33 million over time?”Another government witness, Harvard University business professor Max Bazerman, said he’d been told before he testified that McCallum and another Justice lawyer wanted him to change his testimony.A third witness, Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the lead trial attorney told him that the Justice Department hierarchy wanted him to drop a proposed ban on tobacco industry marketing to young people.Bazerman and Myers said they refused to make changes, and both testified.Vail, Colorado

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