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The Justice Department has accused a public interest group of holding internal e-mails the agency says came from the computer of a former chief lawyer for its tobacco litigation who now works at the nonprofit organization. In a brief filed July 22 in a Freedom of Information Act case, the government alleges privileged e-mails disclosed in the course of the litigation “appear to have been printed from the government computer of former department employee Sharon Eubanks.” The “plaintiff is now on notice that it is in the possession of stolen property,” the government writes. The allegations heightened tensions between Justice and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group that has sued the department for documents related to the DOJ’s 2005 decision to lower the civil penalties it was seeking against tobacco companies to $10 billion from $130 billion. CREW first disclosed the e-mails earlier this month, during a deposition of former Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum. The DOJ seeks the return of the documents. According to the government filing, the first set of e-mails contains drafts of an op-ed by McCallum that was published in USA Today on June 8, 2005. The second is a July 21, 2005, e-mail from Eubanks to Stephen Brody, her former deputy, in which Eubanks details her recommendation to McCallum for the “procedures that should be followed during the Office of Professional Responsibility investigation” stemming from allegations of improper influence in the decision to seek lower penalties. CREW attorney Anne Weismann says the group received the e-mails legitimately. “It wasn’t Sharon Eubanks and it wasn’t from anyone who has a current or former connection with the Department of Justice,” she says. Eubanks, who is not involved in the FOIA case, declined to comment, as did the DOJ. Judge Emmet Sullivan has scheduled a motions hearing for Aug. 7.
Emma Schwartz can be contacted at [email protected].

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