FOR the tobacco industry, Jeffrey Wigand may be the smoking gun.
Mr. Wigand is a former senior executive who ran a tobacco giant's research and development department for four years. Now his attorney says Wigand is willing to tell judges and juries what his former employer knows about the effects of cigarettes.
The prospect of Wigand testifying around the country, in what could be one of the most important whistle-blower cases yet to surface against the tobacco industry, has resulted in a flurry of legal actions. Yesterday, however, Wigand showed up in Pascagoula, Miss., and began talking.
His testimony followed a state judge's ruling in Mississippi on Tuesday that Wigand must tell federal and state officials what he knows about his former employer, Brown & Williamson (B&W) Tobacco Co., a division of B.A.T. Industries Plc.
Yesterday morning, Wigand was questioned by the FBI, who wanted to talk to him as part of a Justice Department investigation into whether the tobacco companies conspired to hinder the development of a cigarette that was less likely to start fires.
On Monday, B&W obtained a restraining order in Louisville, Ky., to prevent Wigand from violating a confidentiality agreement he signed two years ago. Wigand agreed not to divulge any of the company's secrets or ''disparage the reputation'' of the company or its products. The agreement requires that he give the company a meaningful opportunity to meet with him before testifying. But yesterday, a B&W official said the company would ask a Kentucky judge to declare Wigand in contempt of court.
''Wigand poses an enormous threat to Brown & Williamson as well as the other companies who have slaved for years to keep their knowledge and activities secret,'' says Clifford Douglas, president of Tobacco Control Law & Policy Consulting in Chicago.
Mississippi officials say Wigand's testimony may be important to the state's lawsuit against the tobacco industry, which aims to collect hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for health care given to poor smokers. It planned to take depositions this week.
Subpoenas from other states
Other plaintiffs battling the tobacco companies are also likely to subpoena Wigand. Currently Florida, Minnesota, West Virginia, Maryland, and Massachusetts have filed or are planning to file suits seeking from the tobacco companies the medical costs of treating indigent smokers. In addition, there are now three class-action lawsuits and hundreds of individual suits.
''Eventually we will subpoena him,'' confirms John P. Coale, a lawyer who is part of a national group of attorneys suing the tobacco companies in New Orleans. ''We don't think that [Louisville] restraining order has any weight outside the judge's county,'' he adds.
The tobacco industry, however, has a significant amount of weight, and it is willing to throw it around when it comes to Wigand. Last week, B&W sued Wigand, who was the source of an unbroadcast ''60 Minutes'' interview.
CBS pulls '60 Minutes' broadcast
The CBS lawyers pulled the Nov. 12 interview reportedly because they were afraid the network might have some liability because of an agreement by CBS to pay Wigand's legal fees in the event of any lawsuit. The lawyers were concerned that B&W could claim that CBS interfered with the confidentiality contract signed between B&W and Wigand. Mike Wallace, the ''60 Minutes'' journalist, said the staff was ''dismayed'' that CBS management had given in to a ''perceived threat.''
The B&W suit is part of an overall trend among the tobacco companies to become even more aggressive with tobacco critics.
On Tuesday, Philip Morris Co. and four other cigarettemakers filed a suit against Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, asking a federal judge to block a billion-dollar lawsuit that Mr. Harshbarger planned to file to recover Medicaid expenses.
It's the first time tobacco companies have filed a preemptive suit of this kind.
After ABC ran a ''Day One'' segment alleging that Philip Morris ''artificially spikes'' its cigarettes with nicotine, the tobacco company sued ABC for $10 billion for defamation. In August, Capital Cities/ABC, Inc. apologized to Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, which also sued, and agreed to pay the tobacco companies' legal fees. First Amendment advocates shuddered.
According to press accounts of the leaked transcripts of the ''60 Minutes'' scrapped interview, Wigand alleged that B&W abandoned a search for a ''safer'' cigarette, used an additive in smokeless tobacco that caused a toxic reaction in laboratory animals, and altered documents about scientific meetings.
B&W has filed a 28-page complaint, charging Wigand with theft, fraud, breach of contract, and leaking secrets to news organizations. It called him a ''master of deceit.''