Jeffrey Wigand, rising from the ashes

Tobacco whistle-blower, subject of the movie 'The Insider,' seeks a normal life.

November 21, 1999|By Robert W. Butler | Robert W. Butler,Kansas city star

Jeffrey Wigand told the truth.

He testified in court -- and for Mike Wallace in front of the "60 Minutes" cameras -- about his work as chief of research and development for Brown & Williamson Tobacco. He stated flatly that the heads of tobacco companies knew beyond a doubt that nicotine was addictive, even though they denied it before Congress. He said tobacco in cigarettes was routinely treated with chemicals to enhance the effect of the nicotine.

Jeffrey Wigand told the truth. As a result, his marriage crumbled, he became unemployable in his field of expertise. He was sued, his character smeared. A tobacco industry lawyer publicly labeled Wigand "a habitual liar, a bad, bad guy." Wigand's family received death threats.

Then CBS buckled under pressure from Brown & Williamson, which threatened to sue the network if Wigand's accusations -- still protected by a confidentiality agreement -- were aired. Envisioning potentially devastating litigation that could scotch Westinghouse's pending acquisition bid for the network, CBS shelved the interview (it was broadcast months later).

Now Wigand's story is being told in the film "The Insider," directed by Michael Mann.

"You know, my daughters used to come home from school and ask me why I worked for a tobacco company," Wigand said in a recent interview from Charleston, S.C., where he is director of Smoke-Free Kids, a not-for-profit tobacco education group. "They had me there. What could I tell them? That I had a mortgage, a family, a child with a birth defect [his oldest daughter had spina bifida]? That I couldn't just run away from a well-paying job?"

Ultimately Wigand was forced out, apparently because he openly questioned some company policies regarding research and development. He was given a severance package contingent on his silence about tobacco industry matters. He had every intention of following the agreement, he said, until he found himself the focus of an intimidation campaign waged by his former employer.

There were threatening e-mail messages, and Wigand found a bullet in his mailbox. The film depicts Wigand being stalked by a stranger late at night on a driving range, an incident that he admits didn't actually occur.

"But was I followed? Yeah. By an ex-FBI agent hired by Brown & Williamson. One of my attorney's offices was searched. Another had her car broken into and her files on me were taken. While I was giving a deposition in court, my briefcase was taken by a Brown & Williamson lawyer.

"Does that moment in the movie at the driving range capture all that? Yes, it does."

Wigand thinks "The Insider" is a masterpiece, but admits it's hard for him to watch it.

"I saw it recently with one of my daughters, and I was proud of the film. But it's still very emotionally intense. It brings back lots of highs and lows. The scenes with my family are pretty hard for me.

"But Michael Mann has done a brilliant job of compressing three years into 2 hours of film and remaining faithful to the actual events."

Wigand says there's no single answer to why he decided to blow the whistle on big tobacco, although he says revenge had little to do with it.

"It was based on a lot of things. I didn't like how my agreement with Brown & Williamson was turning into a form of extortion. I didn't like being threatened. I didn't like my kids questioning my moral compass. And it just really made me mad to see the tobacco CEOs lying in front of Congress and co-opting the local FBI agents and police."

Because of a Kentucky court's restraining order, Wigand cannot publicly discuss details of his work at Brown & Williamson. All in all, he's not impressed with justice in his former home, which he believes kowtows to the power of the tobacco lobby. Kentucky, after all, is a big tobacco-growing state.

"I don't particularly think the courts in Kentucky worked," he said. "I had two lawyers, they had 40. The tobacco companies had the judges. They're used to getting their way.

"This is really a story about how big tobacco tries to intimidate another industry -- the media. It's about getting the truth out, the price you pay for that, the moral lessons we present to our kids."

Of CBS' handling of his revelatory interview, Wigand said: "That wasn't a glorious moment in journalism. They gave their word to me that I'd be protected, and then someone leaked the contents of the interview to the New York Daily News. That put me in a position I wasn't ready for. I had no lawyer, I was living in Louisville teaching high school, I was completely vulnerable when the legal attack came."

"The Insider" depicts "60 Minutes' " Mike Wallace (played by Christopher Plummer) as reluctantly agreeing with the network's decision not to run the Wigand interview. Wallace has protested that the film distorts his position.

"Hey, I like Mike Wallace a lot," Wigand said. "I think he's had a noble, stellar career. But he's got this blemish on it. Just like I do. We all make mistakes."

Several years ago, when his life was at a low point, Wigand took a job as a chemistry teacher at Dupont Manual High School in Louisville. He turned out to be a natural and before leaving education a year ago was named Kentucky Teacher of the Year.

But tobacco industry harassment followed him even to school.

"The school had to post a guard at my classroom door. Brown & Williamson subpoenaed my employment records from the principal. But the kids kept me sane. When I had bad days, the students would take me out for a spaghetti dinner. They were the glue that kept me together."

Now, at age 56, Wigand is a single guy rebuilding his life. For all he knows, he'll always be a single guy.

"It's not easy walking around with me," he said. "People actually attack me. I've been verbally assaulted by individuals, and I have no idea who they are."

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