Smoke This

Smoke This

Smoke This

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Sept. 23 1999 6:56 AM

Smoke This

The New York Times leads with the government's filing yesterday of a lawsuit against the tobacco industry charging decades of fraud and seeking billions and billions in damages. USA Today (which also lavishes a news section "cover story" on the suit) and the Los Angeles Times front the story, while the Washington Post, which led yesterday with a tipper on the filing, runs it inside, choosing instead to go with the virtual certainty that Congress will not complete work on the budget by the start of the new fiscal year, Oct. 1. The problem, explains the paper, is that suddenly not touching the Social Security trust fund has become a Republican goal, something hard to achieve without accepting either spending cuts or tax increases. The Post puts the story under a questionable headline: "HILL GOP SEEKS WAY TO AVOID SHUTDOWN." What, the Democrats are perfectly willing to have one? USAT's lead is that federal investigators now say that as many as 10 American banks might have been used to launder $15 billion in Russian funds. Banks the paper mentions by name as suspected: Fleet Financial Group, BankBoston, and J.P. Morgan. None of these banks, nor previously identified ones like the Bank of New York, are accused of wrongdoing, although USAT mentions, as does a front-page NYT reefer, that in congressional testimony Wednesday, the BoNY CEO said some of his bank's employees used poor judgment. The LAT leads with the FBI's decision to open a new and expanded investigation of possible Chinese penetration of America's nuclear weapons labs, which is the NYT off-lead. At the WP, the development is tucked with little ado midway into an inside story about the reorganization of the Department of Energy.

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The papers explain that the government's civil fraud suit seeks to recover the federal monies spent over the years on smoking-related health care through Medicare, as well as through the budgets for military personnel and federal civilian employees, expenses not covered in settlements the tobacco manufacturers previously made of suits where states filed to recover their smoking-related health costs. It's also noted that the civil filing, despite its appeal to a racketeering statute, marks the end of the government's attempt to bring criminal charges against the tobacco companies.

The LAT and WP accounts of the suit go higher with the industry's adamant response that it will never settle this case out of court. The Wall Street Journal's report says in its first paragraph that the suit is based on a "risky interpretation of federal law." One question that doesn't get addressed: How do the tobacco companies reconcile their denial of this suit with their settlement of the state actions?

The two Times stories agree that the FBI's China spying do-over means that its original effort, focusing on one scientist (Wen Ho Lee) at one lab (Los Alamos), was inadequate. But the NYT, which ran hard with stories raising suspicions about Lee earlier this year, is rather measured about where this leaves things, settling for "the bureau does not yet have any new suspects." The LAT is much harsher, saying the Lee allegation "has effectively evaporated."

The WP front runs a story observing that the Hillary Clinton almost-a-campaign harbors three people who used to work for President Clinton before being squeezed out: Harold Ickes, Mandy Grunwald, and Bernard Nussbaum.

The NYT fronts and other carry inside, word that federal investigators have uncovered a new Internet scam by which Web porn operators clone legitimate Web pages of such sites as the Harvard Law Review, Audi, and Paine Webber so that clicks to them automatically take you to their skin sites instead. The gambit is called "pagejacking," and the one used to force the diverted surfer to click through numerous pages at the porn site before escaping is known as "mousetrapping."

A story carried on Page 27 of the WP says that a government report ordered up by two Republican senators says President Clinton's trip to Africa last spring cost $43 million. Referring to a speech Clinton made during the trip expressing remorse for American slavery, one of the senators said this was a "high price for an apology." Most of the cost comes from the defense budget.

A front page WP story reports that in the past two years, the Washington, D.C., city government has gone from about a dozen employees making more than $100,000 a year to ... 141 who do. The piece quotes various city employees defending the practice on grounds of competitiveness, etc., but never cites any baseline specifics about what most people make. It would have been helpful to note, as did a recent NYT piece on federal pay raises, that this is almost four times what the average American worker makes and almost twice what the average American lawyer makes.

A similar loss of class and economic perspective is on view on the LAT editorial page, where it is proclaimed, "At last, a means is at hand to end a long-standing embarrassment for California." Is the editorial about a fix for the public schools' woefully short supply of new textbooks, or about the state's utter failure when it comes to public mass transit? Er, no, it's about the state legislature taking the first steps towards funding an official mansion for the governor.