The Justice Department said Tuesday that Liggett & Myers, the maker of L&M and other cigarette brands, has agreed to cooperate with the government in its 4-year-old criminal investigation into possible wrongdoing by the tobacco industry.
Liggett & Myers is the smallest of the nation's major cigarettemakers and far less technically sophisticated than giants like Philip Morris Cos. By agreeing to provide investigators with company experts and documents, it could offer a behind-the-scenes look at the operation of the tobacco industry and whether producers conspired to mislead the government and the public.
The Justice Department is investigating whether cigarettemakers suppressed information about the health hazards of smoking, manipulated nicotine levels to keep smokers addicted or marketed cigarettes to young teenagers.
It also is investigating whether the companies conspired to suppress information and defraud the government, and whether industry lawyers suppressed possibly damaging research. The tobacco companies have denied any wrongdoing.
Liggett & Myers' participation also could prove valuable because the company's executives and researchers could serve as cooperating witnesses during both grand jury proceedings and any trials against cigarettemakers.
"Jurors are not used to convicting people based only on documents," said Richard Daynard, the director of the Tobacco Products Liability Project at the Northeastern University School of Law. "But now what the government is getting are people who can serve as witnesses and testify about what they saw and heard."
While some smoking opponents like Daynard hailed the Liggett & Myers agreement as a breakthrough in the government's inquiry, others were more cautious, saying the agreement could have more value as publicity for the government than in a courtroom.
Government investigators have amassed tens of thousands of industry documents, including some 39,000 that a House committee released last week after a Minnesota state judge ruled that they contained possible evidence of fraud and other crimes by the industry and its lawyers.
Some lawyers familiar with tobacco litigation said executives and scientists from Liggett & Myers might help investigators make sense of the mountains of data.
"I think that any time a lead player turns, it has the potential to be very helpful," said Laura Wertheimer, a lawyer in Washington who represented Jeffrey Wiegand, a former executive for the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co. who turned against the industry.
The announcement was not unexpected, because lawyers involved in the Justice Department's inquiry said in February that officials of Liggett & Myers and the government were discussing a cooperation agreement.
Last year, Liggett & Myers, which is owned by the Brooke Group, broke with the tobacco industry and separately settled 22 lawsuits filed by state attorneys general. Brooke Group chairman Bennett LeBow also became the first tobacco industry executive to acknowledge publicly that nicotine was addictive and that smoking caused cancer.
In a statement Tuesday, LeBow said that the company's cooperation showed that it wanted to "continue to play a constructive role in this important process."