Tobacco lawyer accused of document-shredding
THE US Government suspects Nick Cannar, lawyer and tobacco supremo, is expert at getting rid of documents the cigarette companies would rather forget existed.
The Sydney-based former chief counsel of British American Tobacco, said to be central to a global document-shredding policy, is now being summonsed by the US Government in a multi-billion-dollar case.
In the wake of the McCabe judgment in the Victorian Supreme Court, which found that lawyers for BAT destroyed sensitive evidence in the case brought by smoker Rolah McCabe, the US Justice Department is summonsing Mr Cannar to answer allegations that he perverted the course of justice. Lawyers for the US Government filed yesterday a 500-page summons in the NSW Supreme Court for Mr Cannar, now CEO of Imperial Tobacco Australia, to appear in court.
The US Health Department is suing BAT and others in a Columbia court for the costs of treating tobacco-related illnesses. Justice Eames found that under the policy dating back to 1985, lawyers for BAT, including Mr Cannar, were instructed to destroy documents, making it appear like a corporate spring clean rather than a reaction to litigation.
The US recently settled litigation with tobacco companies for $240 billion. If the current action is successful, it is speculated the damages bill may bankrupt BAT.
Mr Cannar, who lives at Lane Cove on Sydney's north shore, started on the BAT legal team in 1981.
According to evidence presented in the McCabe case, the document retention policy was born when BAT chairman Patrick Sheehey told Mr Cannar he wanted documents that might harm the company in court to go away, but not in a way that looked reactive to litigation.
In 1990, it was decided the policy should be spread worldwide.
Mr Cannar moved to Australia in 1994, where in 1998 he asked solicitors Mallesons and Clayton Utz to destroy documents from previous litigation, but to do so outside the BAT legal department.
As CEO of Imperial Tobacco, he oversees a company whose Horizon cigarettes hold a 13.3 per cent market share. In 1999, ACNielsen figures revealed Horizon was Australia's third-most successful brand of any product.
"The role of Cannar is of considerable importance, and his absence from the witness box is glaring. He was involved in the document retention policy from at least 1990 . . . His name emerges constantly," Justice Eames said in his April judgment.
Slater & Gordon partner Peter Gordon, who represented McCabe, said Mr Cannar was "at the centre of these activities by the British American Tobacco Group over the last 17 years".
Mr Cannar said last night he had not been informed of the US Government's action. "I have not seen any documents, I cannot comment on that," he said. "That's compounded by the fact that as I was employed by BAT, I have obligations of privilege and confidentiality."
Mr Cannar refused to comment on the McCabe case, which is currently in the process of appeal.