JOHN YDSTIE, host:
The justice department's lead attorney in its lawsuit against big tobacco says she was pressured by officials at the attorney general's office to influence witness testimony and scale back the government's claim for damages.
Sharon Eubanks left her post in December 2005 after 22 years as a lawyer for the justice department. Ms. Eubanks joins us now from her home in McLean, Virginia. Welcome to DAY TO DAY.
Ms. SHARON EUBANKS (Head, U.S. Justice Department's Tobacco Litigation Team): Thank you, John.
YDSTIE: Remind us briefly the chronology here. The tobacco case began in 1999. You were put in charge of the case by then Attorney General John Ashcroft. When did things go wrong for you and what happened?
Ms. EUBANKS: Well, we filed the case under the Clinton administration in 1999. And in 2001, when John Ashcroft came into the case, we were having problems with funding and - but the real problems occurred towards the end of the case, just before closing arguments. That was when the heavy-duty interference began.
YDSTIE: That came while Ashcroft was still attorney general or was Alberto Gonzales attorney general back then?
Ms. EUBANKS: This is after Ashcroft and general Gonzales was in place, and this was in May, June of 2005.
YDSTIE: And how were you pressured? Tell us about that.
Ms. EUBANKS: At first, the administration officials attempted to get the litigation team and me and my staff to agree to lower the amount, but there was no basis for doing that. And we refused. And finally after a number of very heated discussions, I said, you write it and I'll say it.
YDSTIE: Now, you also charged that there was pressure on witnesses to change their testimony?
Ms. EUBANKS: Oh, yes. The judge had a kind of unusual procedure where she would receive from the witnesses written direct testimony. When it became apparent that we had had - at least so far - put on a very strong case, the administration officials asked to see that before - that written direct testimony - before we submitted it to the judge, and on several occasions, asked us to take certain things out, basically, that would weaken the testimony of the witnesses.
YDSTIE: To what extent do you think that Attorney General Gonzales knew what was going on here or might have been directing it?
Ms. EUBANKS: Well, Kyle Sampson was on the e-mail. So I'm pretty sure he was aware.
YDSTIE: Kyle Sampson is the former chief of staff of Mr. Gonzales.
Ms. EUBANKS: That's correct.
YDSTIE: Now, you've talked about this to some extent before. Why have you come forward again now to talk about it?
Ms. EUBANKS: Probably the most compelling reason is that the case is actually in a state where it's about to be appealed. And the same Justice Department is in place. Peter Keisler is still the head of the Civil Division and still making decisions about the case and what issues will be appealed. And the other reason is in looking at the stories about the fired U.S. attorneys, it seemed to me that there were many parallels in terms of what they were doing, but a huge difference is, I didn't operate at the pleasure of the president.
I was a career person, and it seems to me that it's even more important to ensure that your career people are able to do their jobs so that there's continuity in the department.
YDSTIE: Back at the time, this issue of political interference was investigated, and as I understand it, there was no finding that there was any political interference.
Ms. EUBANKS: Okay, well, let's talk about that whitewash. The investigation was conducted by the Office Of Professional Responsibility, which is not an independent office in the Justice Department. Indeed, I called Robert McCallum, then the associate attorney general, about one aspect of that investigation that OPR was conducting, and he told me he was the target and he would call the head of that office himself and address the issue that I had raised.
If it's an independent investigation, why would the subject of the investigation be in a position to call and to get changes made? And the investigation that occurred, I testified in it. I can assure you, not one single question was asked about the White House interference there, and I had submitted e-mails - communications between the White House officials and Justice Department officials. I was not questioned about those documents.
YDSTIE: Let me ask you about some of this pressure. You were pressured to have witnesses change their story. You were pressured to reduce these penalties. As a lawyer, should you not have just said no?
Ms. EUBANKS: Well, you know, I though a lot about that. And in fact, at one point, called our Professional Responsibility Advisory Office. And it comes down to what is a fairly complicated question of who is the client and what constitutes insubordination as well? I think that the proper way of viewing who is the client is that the client is the public. Who gets to speak on behalf of the public is the next question. But it wasn't an easy question, and I knew that if I didn't do as they said, they could simply remove me from the case and do it themselves. It would have had no effect.
YDSTIE: Sharon Eubanks is a former Justice Department attorney. She was lead attorney in the government's big tobacco lawsuit. Thanks for speaking with us today.
Ms. EUBANKS: You're quite welcome, John.
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