The Justice Department Vs. Tobacco

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Surprises make for great birthday parties but aren't necessarily as effective for governing. The President may have surprised more than tobacco industry titans during Tuesday's State of the Union address when he announced plans for a federal suit to recover billions of Medicare dollars spent to treat sick smokers. The New York Times reported Thursday that this was also news to some Justice Department officials, who were "caught off guard" by the President's threatened lawsuit against cigarette manufacturers. Lawyers at the department have met recently with prosecutors who were successful in the states' tobacco litigation. But as late as last Thursday, says the Times, they had no plans to pursue a lawsuit. Such a suit could cost the industry even more than the $240 billion they have agreed to pay the states.

But Clinton's plan apparently comes as no surprise to Attorney General Janet Reno. At her weekly press briefing this morning, Reno answered questions regarding the apparent disconnect between the White House and the Justice Department and indicated that plans for the potential suit mentioned in the State of the Union have been under way for some time. "There are viable grounds for proceeding," she said, adding that "we are putting a task force together to do so." The task force is to be headed by Assistant Attorney General Frank Hunger, brother-in-law of Vice President Al Gore. Hunger's wife, Nancy Gore-Hunger, was a smoker -- she died several years ago from lung cancer.