Our Good Friend, the Governor

GOP governors secretly help Big Tobacco

On February 5, Geoffrey Bible, CEO of Philip Morris Cos. Inc., chaired a little-noticed dinner for the Republican Governors Association in Washington that smashed records by raking in $2.6 million. At the gala, which Philip Morris underwrote to the tune of about $100,000, Bible spoke passionately to the governors about tobacco's benefits to the economy. Both Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds are members of RGA's elite board, each chipping in about $40,000 annually to the group's campaign coffers. Big Tobacco is now betting its future heavily on the Republican Party. Last year, tobacco companies gave the GOP an unprecedented $2.4 million in "soft" dollars. In fact, the top two soft money contributors to the GOP in 1995 were none other than Philip Morris ($975,149) and RJR Nabisco ($696,450). Similarly, tobacco industry PACs gave $841,120 to Republican members of Congress, about twice the $422,221 they gave in 1993. While these numbers are dramatic, they are more or less out in the open. Meanwhile, the tobacco industry's political strong-arming on the state level has gone largely unnoticed:

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Philip Morris' February bash for the Republican governors was not an isolated incident: The tobacco industry has gone all out to enlist governors--especially Republicans--in its fights. Last November, at the annual RGA meeting in Nashua, New Hampshire, tobacco lobbyists were out in force, according to a North Dakota official who attended the event. The lobbyists were trying to get governors to send letters to the FDA arguing against the agency's proposed regulation of tobacco on states' rights grounds.

Tobacco lobbyist Kerry Paulsen reminded the North Dakota official that his company, UST (formerly U.S. Tobacco), had long supported North Dakota Gov. Edward Schafer, and that 1996 was an election year. When the official asked whether Paulsen was threatening to withhold funds if the governor didn't sign the letter, Paulsen said, "I'd never do that." But he went on to add, "You know we have PAC money, we like the governor, and we want him to be re-elected." Ultimately, Gov. Schafer signed the letter, drafted by a North Dakota tobacco industry lawyer.

Schafer was not the only governor to heed the industry's call for help. The FDA received letters opposing tobacco regulation from governors or lieutenant governors in several states, including Kentucky, South Carolina, Connecticut, Montana, and Mississippi. Copies of the letters obtained by Mother Jones show marked similarities, in some cases using virtually identical language (see A case of...).

  • Nor has writing letters been the only mission governors have performed for the tobacco industry. On February 16--less than two weeks after the Philip Morris-funded GOP governors' bash--Gov. Kirk Fordice (R-Miss.) took the highly unusual action of suing his own attorney general, Mike Moore, to block litigation Moore had initiated against the tobacco industry. Moore's landmark suit would require tobacco companies to pay for smoking-related Medicaid costs incurred by the state. Filed in May 1994, it has since been emulated by six other states; jointly the suits seek to recover approximately $10 billion in smoking-related health care costs, plus billions more in punitive damages.

    Last fall, in an effort to unseat Moore, the Republican National Committee contributed $80,000 to Bill Jordan, Moore's opponent in the attorney general's race, or more than two-thirds of the amount Jordan had raised by October 28. (Nonetheless, Moore won the race handily.)

  • Covington & Burling, the tobacco industry's premier law firm in Washington, has assembled a small team of politically well-connected lawyers to travel around the country pressuring other state attorneys general not to sue to recover Medicaid expenses in their own states. The team, led by Covington partner Keith Teel, includes at least one former attorney general, Andy Miller from Virginia.

    Meeting with state attorneys in Boston, the legal team warned that "it would take scores and scores of state employees" to handle the legal discovery if Massachusetts went ahead with a suit, according to one of the state's lawyers. The meeting, however, failed to deter the Massachusetts state attorneys, who filed a suit last December.

    A meeting in another state currently considering a suit against tobacco was described for Mother Jones by an assistant attorney general who was present: "It was bare knuckles. Teel ran the meeting. He said, 'If you do this, you'll have more lawyers coming at you than you'd ever want.'" According to the attorney, Teel threatened to depose every Medicaid recipient in the state. To make his point, Teel brought along lawyers from three of the state's biggest firms. One of them, according to the assistant attorney general, blurted out, "No one's kidding themselves that nicotine's not addictive." Teel quickly interrupted, explaining, "Of course, it's the industry's position that nicotine's not addictive."

  • Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut attorney general, told Mother Jones that the industry has worked hard to quash opposition: "The tobacco industry is not in the least bit reluctant to express itself directly or indirectly to law enforcement officials it regards as foes. There have been repeated contacts with me and other attorneys general to deter us from efforts the industry regards as hostile. They've varied in degrees...of antagonism and overtness."

  • The tobacco industry has also been making quiet contributions to state legislators. For example, they make hefty donations to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group of about 3,000 conservative legislators. Philip Morris and RJR sit on the council's board, which fights excise tax increases. Philip Morris gives the group about $50,000 per year; RJR about $25,000; and UST about $15,000.

    Philip Morris also contributes to the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, a group of more than 7,000 state legislators. In 1995, Philip Morris gave $150,000 for the group's annual meeting, doubling its 1994 contribution.