Ashcroft said the department was waiting for a federal judge to rule on motions from the industry to dismiss the case.
However, "the Department of Justice is proceeding with the case, and I support the department's position," Ashcroft said.
The attorney general was responding to questions from Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., the ranking member on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee dealing with the Justice Department. Hollings questioned whether the department was serious about the litigation because it is asking for "only" $1.8 million to pursue the case.
Justice officials have estimated the full cost of the lawsuit could cost taxpayers nearly $58 million. The department filed suit against the tobacco companies during the Clinton administration to recover the unspecified costs to federal programs of treating tobacco illnesses.
The federal suit is separate from the 1998 settlement in which the tobacco companies pledged to pay $200 billion to 46 states over 25 years.
"First of all, this is an ongoing matter of litigation," Ashcroft said Thursday. "Our budget request on this case is exactly the same budget request as was fashioned and submitted by [then-Attorney General Janet Reno] in anticipation of the year 2002.
"It is identical to the budget request which she submitted as well for the year 2001. It's for $1.8 million to continue the case. It is in anticipation, in the event that the needs arise and all, that additional funding would be available for the case in the way that it has been in the past."
Reno had to look for money to support the litigation in the contingency funds of other departments, such as Health and Human Services, because Congress refused to fund it formally.
A federal judge has already thrown out two of the three grounds on which the lawsuit was filed. The Justice Department is asking the trial judge to restore at least one.
The remaining ground, alleged violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, better known as RICO, is also the target of a motion to dismiss.
A published report Thursday suggested Ashcroft was considering replacing some of the 31-member tobacco litigation team as a means of derailing the case.
"I have not made any indication about any reassignment of attorneys," Ashcroft told Hollings when asked about the report. "I have not made a decision about the case. The department has a position in this case, and I believe that if we were to reevaluate that position it should be based upon what the courts do in response to the matters that are pending on the court."
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