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News Briefs II

Jury Finds Tobacco Industry Not Liable for Damages in Ohio Case

LOS ANGELES TIMES -- The tobacco industry won a major victory Thursday when an Akron, Ohio jury cleared the nation’s major cigarette companies of allegations by 114 union health funds that the companies conspired to suppress information about the hazards of smoking and targeted unsophisticated blue-collar workers with slick marketing campaigns.

The jury, hearing the first case of its kind to go to trial, reached a verdict after just two days of deliberations in a case where the industry faced up to $2 billion in damages.

“The significance of this case is profound at this point in time,” said Robert C. Weber, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.’s lead lawyer. “This was a dream case for the plaintiffs. They got to introduce a hit parade of industry documents they like to use out of context and the jury unanimously rejected every claim ... including the claim that this industry had engaged in a 50-year conspiracy.”

The decision was a surprise in some quarters. Gary Black, one of Wall Street’s leading tobacco analysts, had predicted that the industry would be found liable and damages assessed against it.

The industry was charged with perpetrating a conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud, tampering with evidence, obstructing justice and engaging in a racketeering enterprise. But the 11-member jury unanimously rejected all of those claims.

If the plaintiffs had prevailed -- employing the novel theory that the companies were responsible for costs the union health funds’ incurred as a result of their members’ smoking-related injuries -- it would have expanded the outer realm of the industry’s liability.

The victory clearly comes as a significant shot in the arm to the industry just four months after a San Francisco jury awarded a female smoker $51.5 million in a personal injury suit, sending tobacco stocks tumbling. It also comes in the wake of the industry agreeing during the past two years to pay $246 billion to settle cases filed by state attorneys general around the country.

Yugoslav Army Roams Kosovo, Violating Truce


The Yugoslav military drive in Kosovo, which forced 45,000 ethnic Albanians from their homes in the past month, continued Thursday with eight mobile units roaming the province in violation of the October truce, the Clinton adminstration said Thursday.

The ominous disclosures helped set the stage for a possible NATO military intervention in the mainly Albanian province of Serbia, a move that top military officials said is fraught with risks in view of the extensive air defense and wintry weather.

Diplomatic efforts were at an impasse, as the Serbian delegation walked out of Paris talks and the Kosovar Albanians signed the U.S.-mediated accord to restore their autonomy. “We have reached the final and decisive stage” in diplomacy, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said.

France and Britain may still send a delegation to Belgrade to offer one last chance to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, but the State Department did not encourage the move.

Starr Lawyer Says He Drafted Indictment Against First Lady


The top prosecutor in Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr’s Arkansas operation revealed on the witness stand Thursday that he came to doubt the truthfulness of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s statements on the Whitewater affair several years ago and even drafted an indictment against her.

The disclosure, made grudgingly by prosecutor W. Hickman Ewing Jr. as he testified at Whitewater figure Susan McDougal’s contempt trial in Little Rock, Ark., shed new light on the Starr team’s aggressive but thus far fruitless attempt to press criminal charges against the Clintons in Arkansas.

And it threatened to complicate the first lady’s possible run for the U.S. Senate in New York, reviving interest in a scandal that has dogged the Clintons for the last five years.

“There’s nothing good that can come of this for her,” said Lee Miringoff, director of New York’s Marist College Poll, which shows Hillary Clinton leading the prospective race. “The more it sounds like ‘here we go again with the Clintons,’ the less welcome her candidacy becomes.”

The indictment was apparently drafted sometime in 1996. At the time, there was widespread speculation in Washington that Hillary Clinton might be indicted in connection with her statements about investments she held with Susan McDougal and her then-husband, as well as legal work she did on the Castle Grande land development, which siphoned money from the McDougals’ savings and loan.

The mysterious discovery at the White House in 1996 of the first lady’s vanished law firm billing records only fueled the rumors of a possible indictment, but Starr’s team had never acknowledged the possibility -- before Thursday.

Albanians Sign Pact; Serbs Boycott THE WASHINGTON POST -- PARIS

With Yugoslav representatives boycotting to demonstrate their opposition, ethnic Albanians signed a Western autonomy plan for Kosovo at a low-key ceremony Thursday and then made plans to leave France at the conclusion of the unsuccessful peace talks.

As the Clinton administration stepped up its warnings that NATO was prepared to launch airstrikes against Yugoslavia if it does not agree to the autonomy plan, Western mediators are expected to declare an end to the negotiations Friday after a week of fruitless efforts to win the acceptance of the Yugoslav-Serb delegation.

According to diplomats close to the negotiations, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic will be given a deadline of up to a week to accept the plan. They said Western envoys were prepared to travel to Belgrade to meet with him.