• U.S.

WHERE THERE’S SMOKE…

5 minute read
Elizabeth Gleick

THE MAN WHO WOULD BRING DOWN the Tobacco Kings spent last Friday teaching high school in Louisville, Kentucky. While lawyers for his former employer, tobacco giant Brown & Williamson, lobbed allegations of his untrustworthiness at the press, while 60 Minutes staff members put the finishing touches on an interview with him that they planned to air on Sunday, Jeffrey S. Wigand kept mum on the one subject about which he apparently has much to say.

But the words Wigand has already spoken–to Mike Wallace and to a panel of Mississippi lawyers who in late November heard his deposition in a suit against the tobacco industry–cannot be unsaid. As the highest-ranking tobacco insider ever to turn whistle-blower, Wigand’s incendiary allegations about what tobacco executives knew and how they hid it go to the heart of some half-dozen investigations and lawsuits around the country. And if a man’s true danger can be judged by how heavily his enemies are armed, then Wigand, once a vice president for research and development at Brown & Williamson, appears to be mighty fearsome indeed. B&W is going to great lengths to discredit him, while lawmakers are paying close attention to his testimony. As Mike Moore, attorney general in Mississippi, which (like Minnesota, Florida, Massachusetts and West Virginia) is suing tobacco companies to recoup millions of dollars spent treating smoking-related illnesses, puts it, “He knows where all the bodies are buried.”

Wigand’s formerly low profile was blown sky-high in November, during a controversy over CBS’ 60 Minutes’ cutting back a segment on cigarettes because of fear of legal retaliation. Wigand was revealed to be CBS’ Deep Throat, and B&W immediately slapped him with a lawsuit charging theft, fraud and breach of contract, stemming from a confidentiality agreement he had signed when he left B&W in 1993. Wigand nevertheless gave his Mississippi deposition. After somebody leaked a copy of his testimony to the Wall Street Journal, which published key excerpts and lofted the entire document onto the World Wide Web, 60 Minutes decided to go with an updated story on Wigand.

Wigand’s allegations, while not totally surprising, have a shattering specificity. For example, he recalls many instances in which former B&W chief Thomas Sandefur acknowledged nicotine’s addictive power. Federal prosecutors are weighing possible perjury charges against a number of executives, including Sandefur, who declared under oath during 1994 congressional hearings that nicotine is not addictive. They would be interested in exchanges such as this one from Wigand’s Mississippi deposition: “Q: Did Mr. Sandefur have a position that if science affected sales, the science would take the back door?” Wigand responded, “Yes.”

Wigand also remembers vivid scenes of his employers’ covering their tracks in anticipation of the very lawsuits they are now battling. He alleges, for instance, that, with Sandefur’s approval, a company lawyer deleted 12 pages from the minutes of a meeting attended by Wigand and other top scientists from B&W’s affiliates in which there was discussion of developing a “safer cigarette.”

The swiftness of B&W’s counterattack has been matched by its intensity. After declaring to the Journal that Wigand was “a Jekyll and Hyde personality,” whose life was “a pattern of lies,” a team of lawyers and investigators amassed a thick dossier titled “The Misconduct of Jeffrey S. Wigand Available in the Public Record.” Because he’s become a spokesman against a maligned industry,” says a B&W attorney, “…the press has been unwilling to check out his credibility, so we did.”

Their charges against Wigand range from the ridiculous–that Wigand had said he once worked as a surgical nurse when in fact he had been an unlicensed attendant–to the troubling. There is disagreement, for example, over the story of why Wigand left a previous job, at Biosonics, a manufacturer of medical devices in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. According to Jack Paller, Biosonic’s ceo, “There was enormous abuse of a whole group of people.” Yet Wigand claims he left because of “deep concern over the manner in which the company conducts its business and scientific affairs.” In addition, though Wigand denies he ever beat his wife, she did file a spousal-abuse charge (later dropped) against him in 1993, and he attended “anger control” counseling. But, notes Richard Scruggs, one of Wigand’s lawyers, “you may notice that very few of the allegations they have made have anything to do with his work at B&W. Wigand is a regular guy with regular-guy problems in life.” These days, however, he’s also the star witness in a multibillion-dollar legal showdown, and those who stand to lose the most will do everything possible to make sure he doesn’t shine.

–Reported by John Moody/New York and Elaine Shannon/Washington

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com