Friday, March 17, 2006

Bush sends Australia a new Ambassador and he's smokin'!

By Richard Ackland
March 17, 2006

AT THE close of a painstaking and giant racketeering case brought by the US Department of Justice against the country's tobacco industry there occurred a shocking turn of events.

After more than five years' preparation and eight months in court, department lawyers in June told the US District Court judge Gladys Kessler the Government would not seek the anticipated penalty of $US130 billion ($176.5 billion) payable over 25 years from the cigarette companies. Rather, $US10 billion over five years would be sufficient for the funding of quit smoking programs.

This was most peculiar because the Government's witnesses had emphasised the larger amount was necessary to get people to stop smoking. Essentially, the programs required a long-term and determined commitment. Instead, the Government was now asking the court to award a mere 8 per cent of the amount required by health agencies to do the job.

The person who ordered that backflip, and thereby made one of the biggest-ever government pay-offs to the tobacco people, was Robert McCallum, who had been promoted by his old pal George Bush to associate attorney-general - the No. 3 position at the Justice Department.

McCallum was a partner at the Atlanta office of the big US law firm Alston & Bird, one of whose numerous clients was the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, the second-largest tobacco manufacturer in the US. Bush inveigled his pal to leave Atlanta and move to Washington to head the department's civil law division for his Administration. He became one of the key political operatives at the department and, effectively, (former) attorney-general John Ashcroft's hatchet man.

Now Bush has given his Skull & Bones comrade one more leg-up by nominating him as ambassador to Australia. Any vain hope that we deserve better than another political crony and enforcer as the representative from Washington has flown out the window. It remains to be seen if the US Senate does a proper job in investigating his conflicted political interference in the course of justice.

On June 16 last year The New York Times published Department of Justice memos that revealed the extent of the internal fight and the undermining of the case by McCallum and other political appointees.

A Justice Department employee was quoted as saying: "Everyone is asking, 'Why now? Why would you throw the case down the toilet at the very last hour, after five years."'

Figures published yesterday in The Age may help explain why. In 2004 alone the US tobacco industry donated $2.7 million to the Republicans and $938,000 to the Democrats. Bush also is an enthusiastic opponent of legal actions against corporations.

Judge Kessler is still to hand down her decision and the department is still investigating the question of political interference. By the time those decisions are arrived at, Robert McCallum, in all probability, will be safely ensconced in Canberra, far from the hue and cry.
This and more in today's Herald.

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