After an eight-month trial, the Justice Department's long-running pursuit of the tobacco companies for conspiring to deceive the public about the dangers of smoking seemed close to a resolution.
The companies had already settled with the states for $246 billion, but an appeals court blocked the feds from seeking to recover $280 billion in presumably deceptively earned profits and instead told them to go for "forward-looking" remedies.
But last week federal prosecutors abruptly proposed a dramatically reduced settlement, $10 billion over five years, that would omit the 45 million smokers and instead target the 1.3 million people who become smokers each year.
This left most everybody stunned — public-health advocates, trial observers, members of Congress, even the tobacco companies' own lawyers.
The final settlement is in the hands of the trial judge, Gladys Kessler, who can accept, reject or reshape the final penalties, so the $10 billion proposal is not the last word. But critics were quick to see political intervention by the Bush administration on behalf of a powerful lobby and generous source of campaign funds.
If there is an innocent explanation for the abrupt shift, the Justice Department had yet to make it by week's end. And, in truth, this proposed deal doesn't pass the smell test. The inspector general and the appropriate congressional committees should quickly determine if something rotten is causing the odor.