WASHINGTON, June 15 - Senior Justice Department officials overrode the objections of career lawyers running the government's tobacco racketeering trial and ordered them to reduce the penalties sought at the close of the nine-month trial by $120 billion, internal documents and interviews show.
The trial team argued that the move would be seen as politically motivated and legally groundless.
"We do not want politics to be perceived as the underlying motivation, and that is certainly a risk if we make adjustments in our remedies presentation that are not based on evidence," the two top lawyers for the trial team, Sharon Y. Eubanks and Stephen D. Brody, wrote in a memorandum on May 30 to Associate Attorney General Robert D. McCallum that was reviewed by The New York Times.
The two lawyers said the lower penalty recommendation ordered by Mr. McCallum would weaken the department's position in any possible settlement with the industry and "create an incentive for defendants to engage in future misconduct by making the misconduct profitable."
At the close of a major trial that dozens of Justice Department lawyers spent more than five years preparing, the department stunned a federal courtroom last week by reducing the penalties sought against the industry, from $130 billion to $10 billion, over accusations of fraud and racketeering.
The decision generated protests from health advocates and Democratic lawmakers, who accused the Bush administration of political motives, and it prompted an internal departmental inquiry. But details of the behind-the-scenes debate over the issue had remained a mystery.