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Democrats pressure Ashcroft to preserve tobacco suit


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Amid new calls by Democrats to preserve a federal lawsuit against the tobacco industry, Attorney General John Ashcroft Thursday said he would await preliminary court rulings before deciding whether to drop the massive case.

"There is no change in policy," Ashcroft told a Senate appropriations subcommittee in his first appearance as attorney general before his former colleagues.

"If we were to re-evaluate that position, it should be based upon what the courts do in response to the matters that are pending," Ashcroft said, disputing reports that he has already decided to abandon the case.

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A federal court is considering a motion to dismiss a racketeering case brought by the Clinton administration against the tobacco industry for what it claimed was a pattern of deceptive behavior. Also pending is a revised attempt by Justice Department lawyers to reinstate a portion of the case to recover health-care costs, which the court previously dismissed.

Sen. Ernest 'Fritz' Hollings, D-South Carolina, pressed Ashcroft for a promise to pursue the case. Separately, fellow Democratic senators Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, and Richard Durbin, of Illinois, wrote to Ashcroft warning that simply delaying action could kill the case.

"A lengthy review will kill the lawsuit as surely as a decision to terminate it," the senators wrote.

A similar letter to Ashcroft from House Democrats Rep. Henry Waxman, of California, and Rep. Marty Meehan, of Massachusetts, was also being prepared, Democratic sources said.

Ashcroft disputed a Washington Post story Thursday, which quoted anonymous sources as saying the attorney general may remove some of the lawyers currently working on the tobacco lawsuit.

"I've not made any indication on reassigning attorneys," Ashcroft said.

Ashcroft told the appropriations panel the $1.8 million dollars earmarked for the lawsuit in the proposed budget reflects a neutral stance that keeps alive the option of pursuing the tobacco lawsuit.

"The appropriation requested this year is identical to the appropriation requested last year and is in fact identical to the appropriation submitted by my predecessor, Miss Reno as attorney general, for this year's operation," Ashcroft testified.

Skeptical Democrats cited a leaked internal memo to Ashcroft from the government's tobacco litigation team indicating it would need more than $57 million to continue pursuing the case.

Justice Department officials this week took the position that Congress was able to find additional funds to preserve the case last year and can do so again this year if the lawmakers so choose.

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