A judge ruled Thursday that Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum must undergo questioning in a lawsuit, a decision that is helpful to a private group seeking records about the Justice Department’s conduct in a landmark case against the tobacco industry.

The action by U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan is the latest problem related to McCallum’s nomination as the Bush administration’s choice to become ambassador to Australia.

Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois is blocking McCallum’s nomination over allegations the No. 3 official at the Justice Department improperly influenced the government’s lawsuit against cigarette manufacturers.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington sued last year after the department ignored the testimony of one of its own witnesses in the tobacco trial and reduced the amount the Bush administration is seeking from the tobacco industry from $130 billion to $10 billion.

CREW says the department has failed to produce a single responsive document to demands for information under the Freedom of Information Act.

Sullivan said the private organization is entitled to delve into the department’s handling of the document requests by questioning McCallum, who is at the center of the controversy over whether the administration caved into the tobacco industry in reducing the amount of money it is seeking.

The judge said statistical data the department sends to Congress every year belies the government’s argument that there is nothing unusual or out of the ordinary in the amount of time it has taken to respond to CREW’s lawsuit.

In its lawsuit filed last October, CREW asked for records of all contacts between Justice Department officials and the White House concerning the tobacco litigation and records of all contacts between McCallum and his old law firm in Atlanta which has done work in the past for the tobacco industry.

© 2006 The Associated Press