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WASHINGTON -- A federal judge overseeing the Justice Department's lengthy civil racketeering trial against major cigarette makers called both sides to a closed-door meeting Monday, fueling speculation that settlement talks were in the works, according to the Associated Press.
U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler did not publicly disclose the reason for the meeting. Afterward, attorneys leaving the courthouse would not comment on whether settlement talks were under way.
At least two CEOs were at the meeting: Michael Szymanczyk, the head of Altria Group Group Inc.'s Philip Morris USA division, and Susan Ivey, the head of Reynolds American Inc. They left separately about half an hour after the two lead Justice Department lawyers on the case.
Attorneys for both companies declined to comment on the meeting. Justice Department lawyers Sharon Eubanks and Stephen Brody also would not comment.
"The proceedings are under seal," said William S. Ohlemeyer, vice president of Altria Group, the parent company of Philip Morris, which makes top-selling Marlboro cigarettes.
The government claims cigarette makers conspired for decades to hide the dangers of smoking. The trial, which started last September, concluded earlier this month.
At the end of the case, prosecutors asked the judge to require cigarette makers to fund a $10 billion, five-year, stop-smoking program -- even though one of the government's own witnesses had proposed a 25-year nationwide smoke cessation program that would have cost the industry $130 billion.
Democratic lawmakers have cried foul, citing news reports that senior-level political appointees in the Justice Department pressured career department lawyers on the trial team to slash the program's size.
Justice Department officials say the program was adjusted to fit the strict requirements of the civil racketeering law under which the case was filed in 1999.
An appeals court in February barred the government from seeking $280 billion in allegedly ill-gotten tobacco profits.