WASHINGTON -- A federal judge yesterday questioned what was behind the government's decision to slash the proposed size of a nationwide stop-smoking program, one of the penalties recommended in a racketeering suit against cigarette makers.
The government asked US District Judge Gladys Kessler on Tuesday to require the companies to fund a five-year, $10 billion program, a fraction of the 25-year, $130 billion program suggested by government witness Michael C. Fiore, a University of Wisconsin medical professor.
The Justice Department called the $10 billion program an ''initial request" that could be expanded. But Kessler said yesterday, ''There may be some additional influences being brought to bear" on the government's decision.
Democratic Representatives Henry Waxman of California and Martin Meehan of Massachusetts sent a letter yesterday to Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine asking him to assess whether ''improper political interference" factored in the decision to ask for a smaller program.
''The Justice Department's approach to tobacco litigation should be based on the facts of the case and not political favors to the tobacco industry," the congressmen wrote. ''It is highly unusual for government prosecutors to abandon evidence-based testimony by their key witnesses at the last moment in a major trial."
Associate attorney general Robert McCallum said the government would address the stop-smoking program again today, when closing arguments are scheduled to conclude. But, speaking to several reporters in the courtroom, he said he would not comment on what factors influenced the decision to ask for a smaller program.