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Justice Investigates Republicans' Potential Collusion With Tobacco

By Jonathan Weisman
The Baltimore Sun

The Justice Department's criminal division is investigating allegations that Senate Republicans and the tobacco industry violated federal law by illegally colluding to torpedo anti-smoking legislation in June.

The department quietly informed Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota on Aug. 17 that it would examine whether the industry and Senate Republicans engaged in an illegal quid pro quo: political advertising in exchange for votes.

"The allegation that tobacco companies may have promised favorable political advertising in exchange for a senator's vote on specific legislation raises concerns under the bribery and gratuity statutes," wrote Assistant Attorney General L. Anthony Sutin. "The criminal division is presently examining this allegation to determine whether any further investigation is warranted."

The landmark tobacco legislation collapsed in Congress on June 18. Before the vote, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky reportedly told fellow Republicans that tobacco industry officials had promised to continue running advertising through the November elections to try to provide political cover to Republican senators who would vote against the bill. The ads condemn the anti-smoking bill, which would impose sharply higher cigarette taxes, as another effort to raise taxes on ordinary Americans.

McConnell denies any quid pro quo. He says he received no assurances from the industry before the vote. Instead, said McConnell's spokesman, Robert Steurer, the senator merely made "a statement of the obvious": that he was sure the industry would continue to run advertisements simply because it would be in the industry's best interest to do so.

Industry officials say the TV commercials amounted to perfectly legal issue advertising that was not tied to any political support they might have received from Republicans. But Justice Department investigators decided there was enough evidence to merit further review.

The probe was prompted by Daschle's July 2 request that Attorney General Janet Reno examine whether an explicit promise of advertising in exchange for votes would violate federal election laws.