Tobacco Lawyer: No Apologies Ntc

August 12, 1994|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Sun Staff Writer

George A. Nilson is respected by his fellow lawyers and acclaimed for his attempt to reduce the influence of big money on Maryland politicians.

So why is he representing the pariah of the 1990s, the industry everyone loves to hate and Gary Trudeau lives to lampoon -- the tobacco companies?

"Tobacco companies are people, too," he said, chuckling.

"And they have rights, and they're entitled to have legal claims presented and fairly considered, and not considered in a hysterical way by people who brand them all as merchants of death and dismiss everything they say."

One thing about Mr. Nilson, the lead lawyer for tobacco companies challenging Maryland's new workplace smoking ban, he doesn't try to sugarcoat his answers.

At age 52, he makes no apologies for a legal career during which he has both defended and sued the state, tried to curtail the political power of big business and advanced its financial interests in court.

A native of Queens in New York City, Mr. Nilson surveys downtown Baltimore from a cluttered desk in the office tower that houses the prestigious law firm of Piper and Marbury.

The firm, by the way, does not allow smoking indoors. That means the lawyer for the Marlboro Man and Joe Camel actually has to step outside if he wants to feed his on-again, off-again cigarette habit.

And that's just fine with Philip Morris U.S.A., and the American, R. J. Reynolds, Lorillard, and Brown & Williamson tobacco companies, he said. "The point of the tobacco companies is that the government should let the private sector work it out," he said.

The companies are suing Maryland over its regulation banning smoking in offices, restaurants, bars, factories and almost all other indoor workplaces. The regulation is the toughest of its kind in the country and one of the first to be challenged in court. The case opened in Talbot County Circuit Court yesterday.

The lawsuit pits Mr. Nilson against his former employer and his wife's current boss -- the Maryland Attorney General's office. A Yale Law School graduate, Mr. Nilson worked in that office from 1973 to 1982, serving as second-in-command to former Attorneys General Stephen H. Sachs and Francis B. Burch.

His wife, Elizabeth L. Nilson, is a lawyer on an unpaid leave of absence from the attorney general's office to help care for her elderly parents.

"This is not the first time George and I have been on the opposite sides of a question," she said. "I'm never really surprised when George takes on a fight."

Her husband is perhaps best known in Maryland political circles for leading an effort to reform campaign laws in 1986 under former Gov. Harry Hughes. As a volunteer, Mr. Nilson chaired a commission that proposed limiting the contributions of political action committees and barring lobbyists from raising money for state lawmakers.

The General Assembly waited until 1991 to enact such legislation. But even before that landmark law, Mr. Nilson's commission won kudos for trying to define and promote ethical dealings in political campaigns.

As such, Mr. Nilson was a smart choice for the tobacco companies, said John R. Stierhoff, a lawyer and chief aide to Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

"The ethics of the [tobacco] industry have been questioned nationwide, and here is someone whose own ethics are beyond reproach," Mr. Stierhoff said. With someone like Mr. Nilson involved, he said, "the case moved from the ethics of tobacco to the legal aspects of the regulation."

As far as Mr. Nilson is concerned, the legal aspects are all that matter.

When first approached by Philip Morris in late spring, Mr. Nilson said, both he and the firm considered the ramifications of being associated in the public mind with "merchants of death."

"We thought about that issue, as you think about that issue whenever someone asks you to represent them. But given the nature of the dispute and given the nature of what the state was about to do, we all believed there were legitimate and serious legal issues here," he said.

"Nobody was asking us to stand up and say, 'Smoking is not bad for you' or 'Smoking is good for your health.' We haven't been asked and won't be asked to say anything on behalf of our clients that we don't believe in or that we think is a crock," he said.

Still, how can someone have a reputation as a good guy while defending an industry that has been accused of marketing a cancer-causing product to children?

"I represented 'evil' asbestos manufacturers for years," said Mr. Nilson who, incidently, has never gotten around to checking out some suspected asbestos in his own basement. ("You often create more problems by mucking around with asbestos that just leaving it there," he explained.)

As for his work with asbestos companies, he said, "I don't feel that I was a 'black hat' representative. But somebody who paints with a broad brush would say anyone who defends white dust manufacturers is just as bad as someone who represents tobacco manufacturers."

Maybe, but what about Mr. Nilson's reputation as a champion of campaign law reform? The tobacco case has put Mr. Nilson in the unusual position of consulting with a man charged with violating state campaign financing laws, Tobacco Institute lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano.

A flamboyant lobbyist and lawyer, Mr. Bereano has made a career of spending lavishly on Maryland legislators on behalf of his clients. He is scheduled to stand trial this fall on charges of defrauding clients in a scheme to make illegal campaign contributions.

The association with Mr. Bereano doesn't bother Mr. Nilson. "We weren't being asked to marry him. We were basically being asked to move into a house down the street from him," he said.

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