The investigation centers on whether Brown & Williamson committed fraud by misleading the government about nicotine levels in its cigarettes, and the secret development in Brazil of a genetically-engineered tobacco plant with twice the nicotine levels of normal tobacco.
A California biotechnology firm that helped Brown & Williamson develop the powerful "super tobacco" has already pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the government.
U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., who is monitoring the investigation, called the target letters a major turn in the tobacco investigation.
"Target letters are not sent out by the Justice Department until they're pretty sure they have the parameters of a serious case," says Meehan.
Brown and Williamson had no response to the developments. Company chairman Nick Brookes has appeared before the grand jury at least once. However, he is not believed to be a target for indictment.
The public television program Frontline, in a report to be aired Tuesday night, first obtained word of the target notification.
Meanwhile, the thought of a criminal indictment has terrified tobacco executives for months. Big Tobaccco lobbied hard for criminal immunity when first cutting a deal with the state attorneys general last year, but the efforts were unsuccessful.
Now some of the cigarette bosses have adopted a new tactic: They're consulting with defense attorneys.
Reported by Jim Stewart
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