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U.S. seeks to settle lawsuit against tobacco industry

From Kelli Arena and Kelly Wallace
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Justice Department is seeking to settle its civil suit demanding billions of dollars in damages against the tobacco industry, government sources said.

The sources said Attorney General John Ashcroft has assembled a team of three lawyers -- all career attorneys in the department's Civil Division -- to work on a possible settlement.

The team met Tuesday with the Department's tobacco litigation team about a potential settlement.

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A senior Justice Department official said Attorney General John Ashcroft made the decision "more than a week" ago to explore a possible settlement in the government's lawsuit against the tobacco industry.

The official could not say if or when Ashcroft consulted with the White House about his decision.

It follows a recommendation from the Justice Department's acting head of civil litigation to pursue a settlement during Ashcroft's review of ongoing litigation, the official said.

"There's also a feeling we are in a stronger position to begin negotiations now than after a judge rules in August" on an additional count the federal government is trying to add to the case, the official said. A federal judge has thrown out two of the four federal counts. The federal government is trying to get part of a third count "thrown back in."

The official was not aware if the Justice Department had yet contacted the tobacco industry about a settlement.

Ashcroft's decision is to pursue a two-track approach, assembling the settlement team as well as continuing with litigation, the official said.

A White House official said "we are aware of" the decision by Ashcroft.

That official and other sources say the Justice Department is pursuing a dual-track strategy, continuing to litigate the case while pursuing a settlement.

The official could not say when or if President Bush was briefed about the Justice Department decision, but the official believed the White House was informed Tuesday after Ashcroft "formally" made his decision.

A spokesman for Philip Morris said the company has not yet been approached about a settlement.

"We are not aware of any settlement discussions," said spokesman David Tovar in a written statement. "We continue to believe the case is without merit."


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