Tobacco fighter makes an about-face
A law firm that sued tobacco companies on behalf of Massachusetts has shocked antismoking advocates by lobbying for a trade group that is working with cigarette companies to fight major tobacco control initiatives in Connecticut.
Three officials from Brown Rudnick Government Relations Strategies are registered this year with the Connecticut Legislature as tobacco lobbyists for the New England Convenience Store Association, a group that has close corporate ties to cigarette companies and aggressively pushes the tobacco industry's agenda in the region.
Two years ago, as it moved to collect record fees from the state's $8 billion tobacco settlement, Brown Rudnick Freed & Gesmer declared it had sued the tobacco industry on behalf of the state of Massachusetts because it was the right thing to do.
''Our firm took an enormous risk accepting this case to take on Big Tobacco in the interest of public health and the people of Massachusetts,'' said Brown Rudnick partner David D. Sullivan. Yesterday, Thomas D. Ritter, a partner in Brown Rudnick's Hartford office and one of the registered lobbyists for the convenience store association, said that the firm's work in Connecticut is limited to a debate over how much stores can charge per pack of cigarettes.
The tobacco industry and the store group have been fighting a proposal by antismoking forces to raise the price of cigarettes by 50 cents a pack to fund tobacco control programs. Ritter acknowledged Brown Rudnick had been involved in the trade association's strategy to grab at least a portion of any cigarette price hike to increase store owners' revenues.
Brown Rudnick's close association with the trade association's legislative agenda caught tobacco control activists in Boston by suprise.surprise. Tobacco industry officials are active in the trade association, sitting on its associate board of directors and various activity committees.
''This has a bad odor about it,'' said Northeastern University law professor Richard Daynard, director of the school's Tobacco Control Resource Center. ''The organization that Brown Rudnick is lobbying for works hand-in-glove with the industry. I find it hard to imagine they can lobby for one priority of the organization and not advocate for another priority.''
Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly said Brown Rudnick's actions in Hartford illustrate the ''reach of the tobacco industry'' and its ability to ''co-opt'' a prestigious law firm.
''Apparently they adjusted very quickly,'' said Reilly of Brown Rudnick's position on the trade association lobbying.
Ritter said the firm is not involved in the trade group's other efforts to prevent local boards of health from replacing the Connecticut Legislature in setting smoking policies. The trade association and tobacco companies want the power to rest with the state, which tends toward less stringent regulations on smoking. Increasing local regulation is a top priority of antismoking advocates
Reilly has been a strong critic of Brown Rudnick, saying the firm has been greedy in insisting it has a right to as much as $500 million in additional legal fees for its work in the 1998 landmark tobacco set tlement.
Brown Rudnick received $178 million, a record in Massachusetts, for taking the lead role in helping the attorney general's office sue the tobacco industry in the 1990s.
That fee was awarded by a special arbitration panel established in the settlement to disperse fees. But when Brown Rudnick further asserted it had rights under its original contract with the attorney general to collect 25 percent of the state's settlement, Reilly and others denounced the firm.
Massachusetts is to receive its $8 billion from the industry over 25 years. Brown Rudnick's fee, under the original contract, would be $500 million. The firm has insisted it took a great risk and put in years of painstaking labor without compensation on the case.
As the firestorm erupted over its pursuit of the fees in 1999, Brown Rudnick attempted to justify its actions on the grounds that it was working for the state's lung cancer victims. The firm still insists it has the right to the larger sum.
''Tobacco use is the biggest single public health threat,'' said Thomas M. Sobol of Brown Rudnick, lead attorney in the case. ''We fought the tobacco industry and we won. Massachusetts is a better place because of it.'' Sobol has since left the firm. Reilly said the Connecticut lobbying by Brown Rudnick demonstrates a strange about-face. ''For them to be turning around and working against efforts to keep tobacco away from kids, and at cross purposes with the tobacco control activists, is disappointing,'' Reilly said.