Big Tobacco Accused of Destroying Evidence
The tobacco industry illegally destroyed hundreds of thousands of documents that might have proved damaging in court, according to allegations in internal industry documents that were made public yesterday.
An executive who helped run an industry-funded international tobacco clearinghouse also charged that agents had systematically tried to discredit anti-smoking activists, had tried to bribe the director general of the World Health Organization and had succeeded in bribing senior health ministry officials in Malawi, Zimbabwe and Brazil, as well as the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
Ron Tully, who now works for the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co., wrote the letters that contain the bulk of the allegations in September 1998 to a lawyer at the German tobacco manufacturer Reemtsma. The letters, which have a bitter and disgruntled tone, apparently followed an investigation into some of Tully's financial arrangements while he worked for the tobacco group, Infotab, which later became the Tobacco Documentation Centre.
While the allegations are unproven, health activists called for a federal investigation. In a letter to Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) said the allegations suggest obstruction of justice, bribery, tax evasion, violations of antitrust law and "numerous other illegal or unethical activities."
"These revelations are quite damning, and they illustrate why the Justice Department should go forward with the lawsuit," said Waxman, referring to a federal lawsuit based on racketeering charges that seeks reimbursement for treating tobacco-related illnesses.
Jay Poole, a spokesman for Philip Morris, which is a member of the Tobacco Documentation Centre, said the company had become aware of the letters two years ago and had investigated Tully's allegations.
"We found there was no evidence of wrongdoing," he said. "These documents have no bearing at all on the Department of Justice case and appear to be another effort by Congressman Waxman to pressure [the Justice Department] to continue to pursue this lawsuit."
The documents were discovered by Pascal Diethelm, a Geneva health activist with a group called OxyGeneve who said he alerted WHO officials. A Waxman staffer in Geneva was also told. The documents were found on the Web site
, which is run by Philip Morris, as part of an agreement the company made with state attorneys general.
Susan Dryden, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said the department would review Waxman's letter "and respond accordingly." Ashcroft had suggested in June that the government ought to settle the lawsuit but subsequently indicated he wants to prosecute it.
Tully declined an interview. In an e-mail, he said, "I have nothing to say. These were employment-related issues."
At least one health activist who Tully said was the target of an attempted bribe â€“ a Belgian named Luk Joossens â€“ told Clive Bates, director of the London-based Action on Smoking and Health, and other colleagues that he had not been offered a bribe. Bates said that while some of Tully's claims should be taken "with a pinch of salt . . . the factual information is extremely strong and extremely damning."
Waxman said there was corroborating evidence for some of Tully's allegations: "He says around 1989 he was involved in bribing officials from the [Food and Agriculture Organization], and at the same time the tobacco industry was claiming victory in getting the FAO to release a report on the economic importance of tobacco."
Tully also wrote that in 1998, officials tried to bribe Hiroshi Nakajima, who headed the WHO, in an attempt to get the health agency to tone down its criticism of smoking.
Nelle Temple Brown, a WHO liaison officer, and Michael Hage, an FAO spokesman, said earlier reports showed the tobacco industry had tried to win favor with agency officials â€“ attempts that an independent investigation last year concluded had been unsuccessful.
Hage said that while the investigation had cleared his agency, any employee shown to have accepted bribes would face consequences.
Some of Tully's most serious allegations concern the destruction of internal documents. In a letter dated Sept. 25, 1998, Tully said he had been asked by the three largest members of the Tobacco Documentation Centre "to identify and remove all documents which could be viewed as 'problematic,' damaging or useful to the plaintiffs in any ongoing industry litigation."
"I authorized the destruction of close to 1 million individual pages in my seven years at the TDC," Tully wrote, adding, "as you are aware, such document destruction is a serious matter for the courts."
Tully also wrote that tobacco executives siphoned off money for personal gifts, lavish dinners and tax evasion. Purchases included computers, printers and "art" for personal use, as well as "wines and champagnes."
During meetings to discuss bidding strategies on factories in Eastern Europe, Tully said, "I was asked to close my ears." He concluded that the discussions breached basic antitrust law for both European and U.S. companies.
At the close of one letter that lists the many ethical lapses of the Tobacco Documentation Centre Board members, Tully wrote that he was upset that the same members were attacking his integrity and investigating him.
"The documents read a little bit like an extortionist's note or a blackmailer's note, and that really wouldn't make sense if there were not real things," said Richard Daynard, a law professor at Northeastern University in Boston and a longtime tobacco control activist.
"If I sent a note saying, 'I have pictures of what you did last night,' and what you did was stay home, read a book, watch TV and go to sleep, my letter wouldn't make much sense."