"The litigation team handling the tobacco suit has not done a good job in the opinion of many in the Justice Department," a top Justice official told the newspaper.
"There is a lack of confidence in some of the people involved. A change in personnel is being considered."
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., a longtime critic of the tobacco industry, said he was troubled by talk of a shake-up on the tobacco litigation team.
"If they are changing personnel to continue and gear up the lawsuit, that's one thing," Durbin said. "But if it's a way to stop the lawsuit, then the tobacco companies have won a major victory with this administration."
Justice Department officials said Ashcroft has not made a decision on whether to move forward with the lawsuit. As a senator, Ashcroft staunchly opposed the litigation, but during his confirmation hearings he said he had no "predisposition" to dismiss it and would evaluate it.
The government's lawsuit, filed in September 1999, alleges that tobacco companies engaged in a 45-year pattern of false and misleading statements about the health effects of their products and tried to cover up information that contradicted their marketing.
Justice Department lawyers are also working to reinstate claims seeking billions of dollars to cover the costs of treating sick smokers under federal health insurance programs.
Copyright 2001 by United Press International.
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