Tobacco 'informer' hiding out

May 17, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

It's unlikely that Merrell Williams is enjoying his 15 minutes of fame.

Tobacco giant Brown & Williamson, the maker of such cigarettes as Kool and Viceroy, effectively put out an all-points bulletin for Mr. Williams, a hitherto unknown paralegal, after he failed over the weekend to appear in Louisville, Ky., for a court-ordered deposition.

The subject: His connection, if any, to explosive company documents leaked over the past few weeks to news media and anti-smoking leaders in Congress -- documents that will be the subject of congressional hearings set for tomorrow and Friday in Washington.

The tobacco company and the law firm for which Mr. Williams used to work have sued him for theft and fraud in connection with the secret papers. Among them is a 30-year-old memo in which a top Brown & Williamson executive stated that nicotine is addictive, a conclusion industry officials publicly deny to this day.

Other documents they accuse Mr. Williams of stealing concern plans to defeat smokers' lawsuits by hiding industry health research from plain tiffs' lawyers. Still others show Brown & Williamson hard at work on a safer cigarette it never marketed -- apparently to avoid liability in the sale of conventional smokes.

While health and anti-smoking groups have a field day with these disclosures -- and members of Congress use them to push limits on public smoking -- Mr. Williams is hiding out, reportedly in Mississippi. Thomas E. Royals, a criminal defense attorney in Jackson, Miss., confirmed yesterday that Mr. Williams has retained him, fearing he may face criminal charges over release of the documents.

Mr. Williams, who could not be reached for comment, apparently has never given an interview -- his obscurity freeing observers to speculate whether he is an intrepid whistleblower, as his lawyers claim, or merely a thief, as Brown & Williamson alleges.

Support for both views is found in filings in Jefferson County, Ky., Circuit Court that tell Mr. Williams' peculiar story.

A 53-year old PhD. in literature, Mr. Williams early in 1988 took a job as a document analyst for Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs, Kentucky's largest law firm -- and counsel to Louisville-based Brown & Williamson. B&W, a subsidiary of British tobacco giant BAT Industries and the third-largest U.S. cigarette maker, had retained the Wyatt firm to sort and analyze thousands of memos, cables, reports and other documents that might figure in cases involving the deaths of smokers.

By his account, outlined in court pleadings, Mr. Williams soon was deeply troubled by the contents of the documents, which he believed contradicted many of the industry's public pronouncements on smoking and health. A long-time smoker who had favored Brown & Williamson's Kool and Richland brands, Mr. Williams said he quit smoking in disgust.

After being laid off by the Wyatt firm in 1992, Mr. Williams says he underwent quintuple bypass heart surgery. He blamed the heart condition on his smoking habit and stress that he said was the result of unwittingly joining a conspiracy of lies.

Last year, Mr. Williams retained Louisville attorney J. Fox DeMoisey to sue Wyatt and B&W over damage to his health. He told Mr. DeMoisey he was already in possession of internal documents that would support his damage claim.

Without naming Mr. Williams, Mr. DeMoisey said he represented a client with a smoking-related health claim who also happened to have worked for Wyatt on the documents project. The client had copied and removed documents, Mr. DeMoisey wrote, because he was "shocked at the fraud and hoax being perpetrated upon the government and the American people."

Recognizing that the documents could be covered by attorney-client privilege, Mr. DeMoisey said he had advised his client to return them, but wanted Wyatt to keep them handy. If the health claim could not be settled, Mr. DeMoisey said, "it is my intention to file suit and immediately demand production" of the documents.

Outraged that a member of their defense team would take their documents for a health claim of his own, Wyatt and B&W struck first. They filed a lawsuit and obtained a court order requiring the "Unknown Defendant" -- they later substituted Williams' name -- to return all documents, and barring him from discussing them.

Ultimately, Mr. Williams returned two boxes of documents, also handing over his personal computer and an inch-thick narrative describing the documents. B&W believed, or at least hoped, that its materials were safe until 10 days ago, when the first report on the documents appeared in the New York Times.

Since then, B&W has been trying to depose Mr. Williams, hoping to prove he illegally retained and distributed copies of the documents in violation of the court order.

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