Tobacco industry papers potentially incriminating Documents subpoenaed by Va. congressman in search for fraud

December 08, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Hundreds of tobacco industry documents divulged in response to a congressional subpoena may provide a broader picture of how cigarette companies marketed products to minors and funneled money through lawyers to finance scientific projects that often played down the risks of smoking.

On Friday, four companies, including Philip Morris, the nation's largest cigarette producer, and RJR Nabisco Holdings, the owner of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco, delivered more than 800 documents to the offices of Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr., a Virginia Republican.

Bliley subpoenaed the documents, which are part of a lawsuit filed by the state of Minnesota against tobacco producers, after the companies refused to voluntarily release them.

A longtime tobacco industry ally, Bliley had demanded to see the records before taking any congressional action on a proposed $368.5 billion settlement reached in June between five tobacco companies and state attorneys general.

The agreement would give the companies immunity from most tobacco lawsuits.

Bliley, who as chairman of the House Commerce Committee is expected to play a major role in fashioning tobacco legislation, has said that any evidence of fraud must be divulged before the companies receive legal protection.

The documents at issue all came from the files of the Liggett Group, a cigarette producer that reached a separate settlement with state attorneys general in March.

Other cigarette producers sought for months to block disclosure of the records, contending that they were protected by the attorney-client privilege.

But a court-appointed official in Minnesota ruled that 864 Liggett documents, which represent strategy discussions and other conversations involving lawyers from other tobacco companies, were not shielded from disclosure because they contained possible evidence of crimes or fraud.

Cigarette producers have repeatedly denied that they marketed cigarettes to underage buyers.

But one lawyer familiar with documents produced by the Liggett Group in the course of cigarette-related litigation said that records in the company's files showed that such marketing took place.

The lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he did not know whether those Liggett documents were among the 864 records selected by the Minnesota court. Other Liggett records also showed that radioactive materials were found in cigarettes during the 1950s and 1960s, the lawyer said.

Several Liggett Group documents were released recently as part of a lawsuit filed by the state of Florida against the tobacco industry.

Other lawyers familiar with the Minnesota case said they believed that far more damaging records than those from Liggett's files had been collected by the state's lawyers from major producers like Philip Morris and R. J. Reynolds.

The Minnesota court is reviewing thousands of records from those companies and others to determine whether they contain possible evidence of crimes or fraud.

Bliley said he would seek any other company records, along with the Liggett papers, deemed by the Minnesota court to be possible evidence of wrongdoing.

Pub Date: 12/08/97

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