The Man Who Knew Too Much
by Marie Brenner
Vanity Fair Magazine
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Angrily, painfully, Jeffrey Wigand emerged from the sealed world of Big Tobacco to confront the nation’s third-largest cigarette company, Brown & Williamson. Hailed as a hero by anti-smoking forces and vilified by the tobacco industry, Wigand is at the center of an epic multi-billion-dollar struggle that reaches from Capitol Hill to the hallowed journalistic halls of CBS’s 60 Minutes.
I: The Witness
“I am a whistle-blower,” he says. “I am notorious. It is a kind of infamy doing what I am doing, isn’t that what they say?”
Wigand is trapped in a war between the government and its attempts to regulate the $50 billion tobacco industry and the tobacco companies themselves, which insist that the government has no place in their affairs. Wigand is under a temporary restraining order from a Kentucky state judge not to speak of his experiences at Brown & Williamson (B&W). He is mired in a swamp of charges and countercharges hurled at him by his former employer, the third-largest tobacco company in the nation, the manufacturer of Kool, Viceroy, and Capri cigarettes.
In the bar, Wigand sits with his security man, Doug Sykes, a former Secret Service agent. Wigand is worn out, a fighter on the ropes. He has reached that moment when he understands that circumstances are catapulting him into history, and he is frightened, off his moorings. He wears silver-rimmed aviator glasses, which he takes off frequently to rub his eyes. Although he has been on the CBS Evening News twice in the last five days, no one in the bar recognizes him. Wigand is 53. He has coarse silver hair, a small nose, and a fighter’s thick neck from his days as a black belt in judo. There is a wary quality in his face, a mysterious darkness that reminds me of photographs of the writer John Irving. Wigand wears the same clothes I have seen him in for days—jeans and a red plaid flannel shirt, his basic wardrobe for a $30,000-a-year job teaching chemistry and Japanese.
In front of us, on a large screen, a basketball game is in progress. “They kept me up until two a.m. last night. Just when I thought I was going to get some sleep, the investigators called me at midnight. At six a.m. I was gotten up again by someone from 60 Minutes telling me I should relax. How am I supposed to relax?” Wigand stares at the TV screen. “You are becoming a national figure,” I say. Wigand suddenly sputters with rage. “I am a national figure instead of having a family. O.K.? I am going to lose economically and I am going to lose my family. They are going to use the trump cards on me.”
I follow Wigand out of the Hyatt and down the street to a restaurant called Kunz’s. A light snow is falling. By this time, Jeff Wigand and I have spent several days together, and I am accustomed to his outbursts. A form of moral outrage seems to have driven him from B&W, and he is often irascible and sometimes, on personal matters, relentlessly negative: “What does your brother think?” “Ask him.” “Is your wife a good mother?” His expression hardens; he retreats into an inner zone.
“When you were in your 30s, how did you think your life was going to turn out?” I ask him. Wigand is no longer belligerent. His voice is quiet, modulated. “I thought I would be very successful. Affluent. I started at $20,000 a year and wound up at $300,000 a year. That was pretty nice.”
All through dinner, Wigand keeps his cellular phone on the table. It rings as we are having coffee. He explodes in anger into the receiver: “Why do you want to know where I am? What do you want? What do you mean, what am I doing? It’s 10 o’clock at night.… What do you need to connect with me for? I am not a trained dog. You are going to have to explain to me what you are doing and why you are doing it so I can participate.” Wigand narrows his eyes and shakes his head at me as if to signal that he is talking to a fool. He is beyond snappish now. I realize that he is speaking to one of his legal investigators, who has been putting in 16-hour days on his behalf, mounting a counterattack against his accusers. “You can’t just drop into Louisville and have me drop what I am doing. No, you can’t! i am not listening, o.k.? fine. you tell him to find somebody else.”
Wigand slams the telephone on the table. “Everyone on the legal team is pissed off because I am in Louisville. You know what the team can do! If he was going to come down today, why didn’t he tell me he was coming?” We walk out of Kunz’s and trudge back through the snow toward the Hyatt. Across from the hotel is the B&W Tower, where Wigand used to be a figure of prestige, a vice president with a wardrobe of crisp white shirts and dark suits. “I am sick of it. Sick of hiding in a hotel and living like an animal. I want to go home,” he says with desperation in his voice.
Jeffrey Wigand and I met at an anti-smoking-awards ceremony in New York on January 18. Wigand was receiving an honorarium of $5,000, and former surgeon general C. Everett Koop was going to introduce him. Wigand radiated glumness, an unsettling affect for a man who was in New York to be honored along with such other anti-smoking activists as California congressman Henry Waxman and Victor Crawford, the former Tobacco Institute lobbyist, who died soon after of throat cancer. “I am not sure I should be here,” Wigand told me moments after we met. “Something terrible has happened to me. Brown & Williamson has gotten private records from the Louisville courthouse. A local TV reporter has come to my school to ask about my marriage. They are trying to ruin my life. When I get back to Louisville, I may not have a job. A public-relations man in New York named John Scanlon is trying to smear me. I have five sets of lawyers who are representing me, and no one can agree on a strategy.” Then he said, without any special emphasis, “If they are successful in ruining my credibility, no other whistle-blower will ever come out of tobacco and do what I have done.” One hour later he was on the stage accepting his award and giving a halting history of his conflict with B&W. “My children have received death threats, my reputation and character have been attacked systematically in an organized smear campaign,” he said, his voice breaking.
When I saw Jeffrey Wigand for the first time in Louisville, he was at the end of one crisis and the beginning of another. We had been scheduled to meet for our first formal interview that evening, and I waited for him to call me. Out of necessity, Wigand has become a man of secret telephone numbers and relayed phone messages; there is an atmosphere of conspiracy around any meeting with him, with tense instructions and harried intermediaries. On my voice mail in the hotel, the messages grew increasingly dramatic. “This is Dr Wigand’s security man. He will call you at four p.m.” “Marie, this is Dr. Wigand. Some problems have developed. I am not sure I can have dinner.” At one point I picked up the telephone. “How are you?” I asked. “Let’s put it this way: I’ve had better days.” Then: “The F.B.I. is coming to check out a death threat.” Later: “My wife, Lucretia, wants me to leave the house. I am trying not to be served with papers.” Finally: “I don’t have a place to go.”
By the time Wigand decided to move temporarily into the Hyatt, it was 10:30 p.m. I walked downstairs and knocked on his door. I was surprised by the change in his appearance in just one week. He leaned against the TV on the wall, diminished and badly shaken. “I have lost my family. I don’t know what I am going to do,” he said.
He had hurriedly packed a few shirts; he was missing even the lesson plans for his classes the next day at the high school. Before coming to the Hyatt, Wigand had broken down at home in the presence of an F.B.I. agent who had come to investigate a death threat and a bullet that had been placed in the Wigands’ mailbox the night before. Wigand said his wife told him, “You have put us all in danger, and I want you out of the house.”
Over the next two weeks, he would hide in Room 1108 at the Hyatt, registered under another name. On January 26, his second night in exile, I joined him to watch himself as the lead story on the CBS Evening News. Wigand was fraught, particularly sour with one of his lawyers, Todd Thompson, when he walked into the room. “Don’t you say hello to me, Jeff?” he asked. “I am angry at the world,” Wigand answered. He was sitting at a small table. On his shirt was a button that read: if you think education is expensive, try ignorance. “I have no idea where my wallet and diary are!” he said. “Why should she have my assets? Why should I continue to pay her expenses?”
That same day The Wall Street Journal had published a front-page, 3,300-word story with an extract from a lengthy deposition Wigand had given in late November about his experiences at B&W. The deposition would be used in a massive lawsuit filed by Michael Moore, the attorney general of Mississippi, against the major American tobacco companies. Wigand is a key witness in a singular legal attempt by seven states to seek reimbursement of Medicaid expenses resulting from smoking-related illnesses. Each year, 425,000 Americans die of such illnesses; through tax money that goes to Medicaid, the general population pays for a significant portion of the billions of dollars of health costs. If the state attorney general, with an assist from Jeffrey Wigand, were to succeed in proving that cigarettes are addictive, the cigarette companies could be forced into settling the hundreds of thousands of plaintiff actions that would result. A number of the lawyers representing the states are working on contingency—in some cases hoping to earn fees of 33 percent—and recently The Wall Street Journal raised the question “Should state governments be getting into bed with the contingency fee bar?”
Wigand is tentatively scheduled to testify late this spring. In his deposition, Wigand had talked about the dangers of a number of additives in cigarettes and pipe tobacco, the addictive properties of nicotine, and the alleged attempts at B&W to camouflage such information. The Wall Street Journal rested on the bed, as did a copy of the most recent death threat Wigand had received: “We want you to know that we have not forgotten you or your little brats. If you think we are going to let you ruin our lives, you are in for a big surprise! You cannot keep the bodyguards forever, asshole.”
Wigand looked up to see his own face on TV. Mike Wallace was interviewing him.
wallace: Last August we talked with Jeffrey Wigand, previously the $300,000 research chief at Brown & Williamson. He is the highest-ranking executive ever to reveal what goes on behind the scenes at the highest level of a tobacco company.
wigand: We’re in a nicotine-delivery business.
wallace: And that’s what cigarettes are for?
wigand: Most certainly. It’s a delivery device for nicotine.
The telephone rang. It was Wigand’s father, and Wigand told him he was on CBS. There was no pleasure in his voice. Suddenly, a copy of the death threat that I had just read was on the screen. Wigand shouted, “How the hell did they get that? Don’t I have any privacy at all?”
That night we had dinner at the revolving restaurant at the top of the Hyatt. As we sat down at the table, Wigand looked out the window. “I don’t believe this,” he said. “We are directly across from the Brown & Williamson Tower.” I could see fluorescent light glowing on a single floor in the otherwise darkened building. “What is that?” I asked. “That’s the 18th floor. The legal department. That is where they are all working, trying to destroy my life.”
The restaurant revolves slowly, and each time the B&W Tower came into view, Wigand would grimace. “Look at that,” he said. “They are still there, and they will be there tomorrow and the they will be there on Sunday.… You can’t schmooze with these guys. You kick them in the balls. You don’t maim them. Don’t take prisoners.”
The anti-tobacco forces depict Jeffrey Wigand as a portrait in courage, a Marlon Brando taking on the powers in On the Waterfront. The pro-tobacco lobbies have been equally vociferous in their campaign to turn Wigand into a demon, a Mark Fuhrman who could cause potentially devastating cases against the tobacco industry to dissolve over issues that have little to do with the dangers of smoking. According to New York public-relations man John Scanlon, who was hired by B&W’s law firm to help discredit Wigand, “Wigand is a habitual liar, a bad, bad guy.” It was Scanlon’s assignment to disseminate a wide range of damaging charges against Wigand, such as shoplifting, fraud, and spousal abuse. Scanlon himself, along with B&W, is now the subject of an unprecedented Justice Department investigation for possible intimidation of a witness. For First Amendment specialist James Goodale, the charges and countercharges B&W has attempted to level against Wigand represent “the most important press issue since the Pentagon Papers.” Goodale, who represented The New York Times during that period, said, “You counteract these tactics by a courageous press and big balls.”
The B&W executives appear to be convinced that they can break Wigand by a steady drumbeat of harassment and litigation, but they underestimate the stubborn nature of his character and the depth of his rage at what he says he observed as their employee. A part of his motivation is the need for personal vindication: Wigand is not proud that he was once attracted to the situation he came to find intolerable. According to Wigand’s brother James, a Richmond, Virginia, endocrinologist, “If they think they can intimidate and threaten him, they have picked on the wrong person!”
It has become a dramatic convention to project onto whistle-blowers our need for heroism, when revenge and anger are often what drive them. There is a powerful temptation to see Jeffrey Wigand as a symbol: the little guy against the cartel, a good man caught in a vise. However, Wigand defies easy categorization. As a personality, he is prickly, isolated, and fragile—“peculiar as hell” in Mike Wallace’s phrase—but there seems to be little doubt about the quality of his scientific information. Wigand is the most sophisticated source who has ever come forward from the tobacco industry, a fact which has motivated B&W to mount a multi-million-dollar campaign to destroy him. National reporters arrive in Louisville daily with questions for Wigand: How lethal are tobacco additives such as coumarin? What did B&W officials know and when? And what does it feel like, Dr. Wigand, to lose your wife and children and have every aspect of your personal life up for grabs and interpretation in the middle of a smear?
When Jeffrey Wigand tells the story of his life, he does not begin with his childhood. Instead, he starts with the events surrounding his forced exit from B&W and doesn’t veer too far from that theme. For most of his life, Wigand defined himself as a man of science, but a scientist in the ethos of middle management, “a workaholic,” and a hard-driving businessman. He is a corporate Everyman, part of a world of subsidiaries and spin-offs, golf on weekends and rides on the company plane. He uses phrases right out of the lexicon of business—“game plan,” “troubleshooter.” He was “director of corporate development at Pfizer,” then a “general manager and marketing director” at Union Carbide in Japan. Later, as a senior vice president of marketing at Technicon Instruments, he was responsible for “a state-of-the-art plant” that “optimized” the “manufacturing facility” for biological compounds.
The son of a mechanical engineer, Jeffrey Wigand grew up in a strict Catholic home in the Bronx, the oldest of five children. When he was a teenager, the family moved to Pleasant Valley, a town in upstate New York near Poughkeepsie. Wigand’s father stressed independence and insisted that his sons help build their new house. Wigand had to control his anger at his parents’ strictness. According to James, their mother was “a cold individual” who had little understanding of children. “I am sure that my father will kill me if he reads this,” James said, “but I felt that my parents believed that children were more to be tolerated. I always had the feeling how much was being done for us, how much we owed for this opportunity!”
A gifted chemistry and biology student, Jeff flourished in the quiet atmosphere of the science labs and hoped to study medicine. As a freshman at Dutchess Community College, he ran cross-country track and “worked as a scrub nurse at Vassar Brothers Hospital,” James recalled. Then he suddenly announced to his parents that he was dropping out of college and joining the air force. “It was a rebellion to get away,” James said. “My mother just about freaked out.… But if you make someone so suppressed, the anger kind of builds up.”
It was 1961. Wigand was sent to Misawa, an American air base in Japan, where he ran an operating room. “I got hooked on the language and on martial arts,” he said. He volunteered as an English teacher at a Catholic orphanage. He was sent briefly to Vietnam, he told me, although he brushed off the experience: “It was 1963, and nothing was going on.” I wondered at the defensive tone in his voice. Later B&W would challenge whether he had been in Vietnam at all. (According to one investigator, he was there for about a month.)
When he came back to the States, he wrote a master’s thesis on vitamin B12 and later earned a doctorate in biochemistry at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He was offered a $20,000-a-year job with the Boehringer Mannheim Corporation, a German health-care company. In 1970, at a judo class, Wigand met Linda, his first wife, a legal secretary from Eden, New York. Seven months after they married, in 1971, Linda developed multiple sclerosis. At the time, Wigand was still working for Boehringer Manheim in New York, but he moved on to Pfizer and then was recruited for a lucrative position at Union Carbide. He was to form a subsidiary to test medical equipment in clinical trials in Japan. He was 34 years old, fluent in Japanese, basking in his new status.
Wigand is proud of his time at Union Carbide—“I was right at the top,” he said—but Linda grew progressively weaker. “Jeff searched the world for specialists,” recalled Conrad Kotrady, a Salt Lake City doctor who has known him since graduate school. “He attacked the problem as if it were an assignment, but then her condition became increasingly difficult for him.” Wigand burrowed into his work, withdrawing from the agony of watching his wife disintegrate physically. In 1973 their daughter, Gretchen, was born.
Wigand has a quality his brother recalled as a kind of personal shutdown—an ability to close off his emotions when things get difficult. As Linda’s condition worsened, Wigand distanced himself from her and his baby. “I really did not have a marriage,” he told me. “If I said I didn’t play around, I would be lying. Linda came back to the States, and something happened in my parents’ house. She went home to Buffalo.” Several years passed before he saw her or his daughter again, and eventually the marriage unraveled. Linda’s parents believed that Wigand had abandoned their daughter, one friend recalled. “I thought Linda was dead,” Wigand said quickly. “That’s what a friend said.” Wigand made little attempt to communicate with his daughter. It is Kotrady’s belief that Wigand did not want to upset her by taking her away from a stable home with loving grandparents.
Wigand met his second wife, Lucretia, in 1981 at a sales conference at Ortho Diagnostic Systems, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, where he was a director of marketing. She was a sales rep. He was, he later remembered, attracted to her cool demeanor and willowy good looks. Lucretia had spent part of her childhood in Louisville, the daughter of two doctors who separated when she was eight. Lucretia’s mother, at one time on the staff of the National Cancer Institute, used to tease Jeff about Lucretia’s expensive tastes. They married in 1986.
Soon Wigand moved on to a grander position as a senior vice president at Technicon, responsible for marketing blood-testing equipment. Wigand was filled with ideas, but he was often testy. Bob Karlson, his mentor at Ortho, recalled pulling on his ear at meetings to tell Wigand to pipe down when he got out of hand. “I have a very bad problem—saying what’s on my mind,” Wigand told me. “I don’t take too much crap from anybody.”
He was a perfectionist who kept a file of correspondence with businesses he dealt with whose products were flawed. In one instance, he returned some hardware to a catalogue company. In another, he demanded reimbursement for a cleaning bill for water-damaged items. Later this file would be detailed and used against him as evidence in B&W’s private investigation, suggesting that he had committed fraud. Wigand had a tendency not to share information, even with Lucretia. On the day before her 30th birthday, Wigand called her from the office: “My friends and I are coming home to celebrate.” Later that afternoon, Lucretia used his car to go for pizza. “All of his office was in the backseat.” She recalled asking, “Is there something you want to tell me?” As it happened, some of Technicon’s upper-management team, including Wigand, had been dismissed. In 1987 he was made president of a small medical-equipment company called Biosonics in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania. Wigand recalled a power struggle with the owner of the company, who recently wrote an article in Philadelphia Forum about his experience with Wigand, accusing him of having bullied female employees and in one instance of having shined a light on his subordinates while he was asking about a company matter. Wigand denies both charges.
For one year Jeff Wigand did consulting work. He finally decided to pursue his dream of being a doctor, but Lucretia convinced him he was too old. Then he approached a headhunter, who asked if he would consider working for Brown & Williamson, the tobacco company. Lucretia was puzzled by the offer: “I said, ‘Why do they want you? You know nothing about tobacco. You had—what?—17 years of health care.’ It did not make sense.”
From his first meetings with Alan Heard, the head of R&D for bat Industries (formerly British American Tobacco), the conglomerate with $3 billion in annual profits that owns B&W, Wigand shut his eyes and ignored the Faustian arrangement. Heard said he wanted to develop a new cigarette to compete with Premier, a product made by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (RJR) which had little tar. The appeal was seductive for a man who prided himself on his research skills, and Wigand’s title would be impressive: head of R&D. He would soon be paid more than he had ever earned in his life—$300,000 a year. His department would have a budget of more than $30 million and a staff of 243. Shortly after he began the interviews, Wigand took up smoking. He later said, “I was buying the routine. I wanted to understand the science of how it made you feel.”
From the beginning, Lucretia encouraged the move to Louisville. Since her parents’ divorce, her father had remarried a couple of times. Along with his medical practice, he owned tobacco land. A move back to Louisville with Wigand in an important position in that industry would probably impress Lucretia’s father and might draw the family closer together. Besides, she had just had a baby, and she believed that life in Louisville would be a boon for the child. “I thought if I made big bucks she would be happy,” Wigand told me.
When Wigand told his brother he was going to work for a tobacco conglomerate, James said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” But Wigand was optimistic. “I thought I would have an opportunity to make a difference and work on a safer cigarette. I talked to a lot of my friends from college. They said, ‘You know, you’re never going to be able to come back. You can’t go from tobacco back into health care.’”
II: The Firm
From Wigand’s first days at B&W, it was apparent to him that there was a contradiction in his situation. On his good days he believed he was helping the world. On the other days he was a guy with a family who earned a large salary. He had a feisty, urban, go-getter personality in an unusual city; Louisville was a Velveeta town, clannish and sophisticated, once ruled by old families such as the Bingham publishing dynasty. At B&W, Wigand’s intensity and uncongenial personality grated on many of his southern colleagues. Wigand believed that he was there to shake up the ossified atmosphere. Three months after he was hired, RJR withdrew Premier from the market because the taste was unpleasant, acrid, and synthetic. Had Wigand been shrewder, he might have thought that he was now in a trap. There was no real reason for a non-tobacco man to remain at the company. But he attempted to keep his contrarian nature under wraps. He went to company parties, and Lucretia volunteered to help at the Hard Scruffle steeplechase, a charity event. It is conceivable that B&W had sized Wigand up psychologically. He surely appeared to be highly ambitious, money-hungry, a potential captive to the firm.
In Louisville, the Wigands bought a two-story, red brick house in a pleasant suburb. There was an allée of trees in the middle of the road, giving a sense of affluence. Wigand had two offices at B&W, one at the R&D laboratory and one in the office tower. When he toured the lab for the first time, he was startled, he told me, to observe how antiquated it seemed. “The place looked like a high-school chemistry lab from the 1950s with all sorts of old-fashioned smoking machines. There was no fundamental science being done.” There was neither a toxicologist nor a physicist on staff, a fact which Wigand found very unsettling. How, he thought, could you be serious about studying the health aspects of tobacco or fire safety without the proper experts? According to documents that later wound up in the University of California at San Francisco library, even in the 1960s research had been done for B&W which tobacco activists say proved that cigarettes were addictive and caused cancer. However, Wigand says that he did not learn of those studies until after he left the company.
Shortly after Wigand was hired, he was sent to an orientation session on tobacco-litigation matters at Shook, Hardy & Bacon, a Kansas City law firm that specializes in defending lawsuits for the industry. The firm is reputed to have its own in-house scientists and tobacco researchers. Shook, Hardy & Bacon and B&W lawyers were aware of the dangers that the company’s research could pose in a lawsuit. B&W lawyers had devised an ingenious method for avoiding discovery of sensitive information: have it “shipped offshore”—a practice one attorney referred to as “document management.” It was the suggestion of Kendrick Wells, an attorney in B&W’s legal department, that staff be told that this effort was “to remove deadwood,” and that no one “should make any notes, memos or lists.” Wigand later testified that another law firm, Covington & Burling, sometimes edited scientific information on additives.
Nine months after Wigand went to work, he attended a meeting of bat scientists in Vancouver, British Columbia. The top R&D executives from bat’s worldwide tobacco subsidiaries were there to discuss health matters and the possibility of a nicotine substitute. There was a feeling of excitement among the scientists that they could reduce health risks for smokers. By then Wigand had grown used to the euphemisms of his new industry. He understood that “increased biological activity” in reports was code for cancer and other diseases. At the meeting, Wigand would later testify, roughly 15 pages of minutes were taken by Ray Thornton, a British scientist. A copy was sent to Wigand, who circulated copies to upper management.
Soon after that, Wigand says, he was called into Kendrick Wells’s office and asked to sign off on a 3-page synopsis of the minutes—a reduction of about 12 pages. In a recent deposition Wells testified that Raymond Pritchard, the then C.E.O. of the company, had assigned Wigand to produce a revised set of minutes.
Within the industry, bat is known as “the tough guy” for its ferocious litigation strategy. As a foreign corporation it has never enjoyed quite as much political influence as the American tobacco companies, which donate vast sums of money to organizations as diverse as the African-American political caucuses, the Whitney Museum, and the political-action committees of dozens of candidates, especially Bob Dole. In the late 1970s the Federal Trade Commission (F.T.C.) investigated the advertising practices of all the tobacco companies. In a non-public report later read at a congressional-committee meeting, B&W’s Viceroy cigarette was mentioned for a proposed test-marketing campaign that appeared to target minors. Several years later, a CBS anchorman in Chicago, Walter Jacobson, broadcast a segment about the report. B&W sued CBS, which paid a $3 million judgment after the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. B&W also clashed with RJR and Philip Morris over Barclay cigarettes and a false-advertising charge brought by the F.T.C. In 1987, B&W withdrew from the Tobacco Institute, an American tobacco lobbying group, for several years.
Although B&W employed 500 people in Louisville, Wigand chafed at the bunker mentality. “It was an incestuous society,” he said. “Wherever you went—to dinners, to parties—the B&W people stayed together. They never mixed.” Many of the executives smoked, although in private they often talked about the risks. “Their whole corporate philosophy was ‘Shit flows downhill.’ You get paid very well. You have lots of nice benefits.” Later he recalled, “I didn’t trust anyone at B&W. I was a different animal.”
Wigand felt that the scientific data at B&W was Stone Age, as he later told a friend. He brought new computers into the R&D facility and hired a physicist and a toxicologist. He worked on reverse engineering on Marlboros, attempting to discern their unique properties; he studied fire safety and ignition propensity.
After Vancouver, Wigand continued to push for more information. He began to hear mysterious names at company dinners—“Ariel” and “Hippo.” “I did not drink at all then—only Diet Pepsi—and I would ask, ‘What is that?’ And suddenly people would clam up.” As the head of R&D at B&W, he should logically have been aware of every aspect of the company’s research. “There were essentially two research-and-development departments. They did the work on nicotine overseas.” Wigand says he did not discover that Ariel and Hippo were research studies on health-related issues conducted in the 1970s at bat in Switzerland until he read thousands of pages of documents taken from a law firm in downtown Louisville by a concerned paralegal named Merrell Williams, a Faulknerian personality with a doctorate in drama. “My perspective was like night and day,” Wigand told me. “It was like being aware and not being aware. You look back on things that happened when you were present and you say, ‘Hell, they knew about that all along.’”
Wigand began to keep an extensive scientific diary, both in his computer and in a red leather book. “I kept it day by day, month by month. I saw two faces, the outside face and the inside face. It bothered me. I didn’t know the diary was going to be valuable.” In one early entry, Wigand recalled, he recorded a promise made to him that he would be able to hire “a scientific and medical advisory committee.” “Then, all of a sudden—poof!—it’s gone.”
Wigand’s scientific ethics had been shaped during his years working for Johnson & Johnson; he admired particularly the stringent standards enforced by C.E.O James Burke during the recall of shipments of Tylenol after a poisoning scare in 1982. At first he believed that Ray Pritchard was a man of honor like Burke. At lunch from time to time, he complained in private to Pritchard about Thomas Sandefur, then the company president. Wigand had come to believe that his safe-cigarette project was being canceled. He told 60 Minutes that he had gone to ask Sandefur about it and that Sandefur had been harsh: “I don’t want to hear any more discussion about a safe cigarette.… We pursue a safer cigarette, it would put us at extreme exposure with every other project.” (On 60 Minutes, B&W said this was false.)
Wigand made no secret of his lack of respect for Sandefur: “I wouldn’t consider them all intellectual titans. Sandefur used to beat on me for using big words. I never found anybody as stupid as Sandefur in terms of his ability to read or communicate.… In terms of his understanding something and his intellectual capacity, Sandefur was just like a farm boy.”
According to Wigand, Sandefur had a particular interest in B&W’s manufacture of snuff. There were problems with bacterial fermentation, Wigand told me. “They could never get it fermented correctly. They could not get a consistent taste or particle size. They could not understand the tactility of soil bacteria and how it worked on the natural flora. What was the effect of ammonia to flora? Most moist snuff deteriorates after packaging. If you could find a way to sterilize it, you would slow up bacterial fermentation and have a safer product. No one had done this for four years.”
Snuff was a critical product for B&W, Wigand said, because it is “start-up stuff for kids.… It was Sandefur’s baby. You have to look at the age somebody starts smoking. If you don’t get them before they are 18 or 20, you never get them.” (Thomas Sandefur declined to make any comment for this article.)
According to The Journal of the American Medical Association, 3 million Americans under the age of 18 consume one billion packs of cigarettes and 26 million containers of snuff ever year. For a cigarette company, the potential for profits from these sales—illegal in all 50 states—is immense, more than $200 million a year.
Wigand came to feel increasingly that there was “no sense of responsibility” on the subject of teenagers and smoking. He was disturbed by a report that on the average children begin to smoke by 14. He was surprised, he told me, by Sandefur’s lack of interest in such matters, and he grew visibly testy. “I used to come home tied in a knot. My kids would say to me, ‘Hey, Daddy, do you kill people?’ I didn’t like some of the things I saw. I felt uncomfortable. I felt dirty.
“The last year and a half I was there, Brown & Williamson used to keep me isolated. How did they know I was trouble? I was asking some pretty difficult questions: How come there was no research file?… When they drink, they talk. I know a lot. My diary will reflect those meetings. I was not Thomas Sandefur’s fair-haired boy.”
He withdrew into a stolid isolation. Lucretia knew something was wrong, she later told me. When she asked him how things were going at the office, he would say, “Fine.” If she pressed him, he would answer, “That’s work, and I leave that at the office.” His need to control his emotions caused him frequently to lose his temper at home, Lucretia remembered.
There was also a major additional problem at home, a hole in the center of his life. His older daughter with Lucretia had serious medical problems. According to Wigand, “Rachel was not diagnosed correctly from birth. Both specialists and general practitioners, including Lucretia’s father, unequivocally stated that Rachel did not have any problem, even after substantive testing. I finally sought out a respected adult urologist, who made the diagnosis of spina bifida. This required spinal surgery.” In a rage, Wigand threatened to sue the doctors who had not diagnosed her earlier. It is Wigand’s opinion that his father-in-law never forgave him. (Neither Lucretia nor her father would comment on this subject.)
At work he grew increasingly vocal. After 1991, B&W’s evaluations of him contained new corporate euphemisms. Wigand had “a difficulty in communication.” He was becoming, as he later described it, a problem for Sandefur by sounding off at meetings. For Wigand, the critical moment occurred when he read a report from the National Toxicology Program. The subject was coumarin, an additive that had been shown to have a carcinogenic property which caused tumors in rats and mice. The makeup of coumarin was close to that of a compound found in rat poison, but until 1992 no one understood the possible dangers. The new report described its carcinogenic effect. When Wigand read this in late 1992, his first reaction was “We have got to get this stuff out of the pipe tobacco.” One of B&W’s products was Sir Walter Raleigh. Wigand told 60 Minutes that when he went to a meeting with Sandefur, Sandefur told him that removing it would impact sales. Wigand got the impression that Sandefur would do nothing immediately to alter the product, so he sought out his toxicologist, Scott Appleton. Wigand says he asked him to write a memo backing him up, but Appleton refused, perhaps afraid for his job. (Appleton declined to comment.)
Driven by anger now, Wigand says, he determined to examine what happens when other additives are burned. He focused on glycerol, an additive used to keep the tobacco in cigarettes moist. He was involved in discussions about the nicotine patch and studied a genetically engineered, high-nicotine Brazilian tobacco called Y-1.
Wigand also began attending meetings of a commission on fire safety in cigarettes in Washington. He observed Andrew McGuire, an expert on burn trauma from San Francisco, who had won a MacArthur grant following his campaign for fire-retardant clothing for children. The commission met approximately 40 times and had four R&D scientists from tobacco companies as members, including Alexander W. Spears, the future head of Lorillard. As far as McGuire knew, B&W was not represented. “I would look out and I would see all these men in suits listening to our discussions. I assumed that they were tobacco-company lawyers, monitoring what we were doing,” McGuire said. Wigand had several conversations about his experiments with additives with other tobacco men attending the meetings, but he never met McGuire.
In the summer of 1992 Earl Kohnhorst, a senior executive at B&W, called Wigand into his office. Wigand had considered him a friend, and had urged him to stop smoking—as Wigand had. According to a memo Kohnhorst later wrote, the meeting was not friendly. Wigand apparently learned he was on notice, and Kohnhorst is said to have implied that he was difficult to work with and was talking too much.
Wigand says that his anger made it impossible for him to censor himself; he had come to believe his worth as a scientist was being violated by his association with the tobacco company. He also believed that the other scientists in the company would share his values. Wigand was determined to be on the record with his research on additives. He recalled writing a memo for the files on the dangers of coumarin. He felt, he later said, that he was being diligent. In January 1993, it was announced that Thomas Sandefur, Wigand’s nemesis, had been named C.E.O. of B&W. On March 24, Wigand was fired and escorted from the building. He has testified that B&W never returned his scientific diary.
III: The Journalist and the Whistle-Blower
In the early spring of 1993, Lowell Bergman, an award-winning news producer at 60 Minutes, found a crate of papers on the front steps of his house in Berkeley, California. Bergman’s specialty at CBS was investigative reporting; he possessed a Rolodex of peerless snitches, C.I.A. operatives, and corporate informants. The grandson of one of the first female leaders of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, Bergman had a bemused, compassionate nature. He was close to 50 and had come to understand that life was a series of murky compromises. At the University of California at San Diego, he had studied with the political philosopher Herbert Marcuse and lived in a commune. Bergman’s wife, Sharon Tiller, was a Frontline producer, and they had five grown sons between them.
Bergman often received anonymous letters and sealed court documents in his mailbox; it did not surprise him in the least, he told me, to find the box of papers on his porch. As always, Bergman was developing several pieces for Mike Wallace, the correspondent he worked with almost exclusively. They were close friends and confidants, but they argued ferociously and intimately, like a father and son. “Lowell can drive me crazy,” Wallace told me. “Lowell would like to be the producer, the reporter, the correspondent, and the head of CBS News.” Screaming messages and six a.m. phone calls were their standard operating techniques, but they shared a passion for corporate intrigue, and together had helped break the Iraq-gate bank scandal in 1992 and examine the accusations of child abuse at McMartin Pre-School in Los Angeles in 1986. Shortly after the mysterious papers appeared on his steps, Bergman won a Peabody Award for a program on cocaine trafficking in the C.I.A.
At 60 Minutes, the on-air personalities were involved in six or seven stories at the same time and took a deserved share of the credit for the show’s singular productions, but the staff was well aware that the producers actually did the backbreaking reporting. In most cases, the producers had complete freedom to develop stories, and it was they, not the correspondents, who were in hotel rooms in Third World countries at all hours bringing along reluctant sources. Later, the correspondents stepped in. Only rarely did correspondents know the explicit details of stories other teams were developing.
When Bergman received the box of papers, he took a look at the hundreds of pages of material. “They were a shambles,” he recalled, “but clearly from a nonpublic file.” The papers were very technical and came from the Philip Morris company. The phrase “ignition propensity” was repeated often in them. “I had never heard that phrase before,” Bergman said. He called his friend Andrew McGuire, the only person he knew who had ever studied tobacco and fire. “Do you know anyone who can make sense of these papers for me?” Bergman asked. “I might have just the guy,” McGuire said.
After being fired by B&W, Jeffrey Wigand remained optimistic for some time, Lucretia recalled. He came close to finding a lucrative job through a headhunter in Chicago. He gave as references Alan Heard and Ray Pritchard. He was surprised not to be hired immediately by another corporation, and soon he began to worry. He reportedly groused about his severance package to a friend at B&W, who repeated his remarks to his former boss. Several months later, Wigand learned that B&W was suing him for breach of contract. According to the suit, his medical benefits would be taken from him, a display of corporate hardball which would subsequently rebound. “If Brown & Williamson had just left me alone, I probably would have gotten a new job,” Wigand said. He reluctantly signed an onerous, lifelong confidentiality agreement so stringent that he could be in violation if he discussed anything about the corporation. Wigand felt trapped, and he did not know what to do.
When I spoke with Lucretia Wigand in Louisville, she used an unusual phrase, “skeletons in the closet,” to describe her fear of what would happen if Jeff went public with his experiences at B&W. “What do you mean, ‘skeletons in the closet’?” I asked. In repose, Lucretia is elegant and steely. She looked at her divorce lawyer, Steven Kriegshaber, who shook his head as if to warn her not to speak. “The so-called spousal abuse—you were worried about that?” I asked. “Sure,” she said softly.
Alcohol and rage are at the center of what happened on a bad night in the Wigand marriage in October 1994. The tension in the family had become overwhelming while Wigand was negotiating the punitive confidentiality agreement. Since Rachel had been diagnosed with spina bifida, the marriage had suffered enormous strain. “I felt that during Lucretia’s pregnancy with Rachel she somewhat overabused alcohol,” Wigand said. “She drinks quite heavily.” (Lucretia denies this.) Wigand himself had at one time been a drinker, but he had stopped when he felt out of control. After he was fired, he told me, it was not surprising that he began to drink again. Lucretia, he said, was “stunned” when she heard that he had once again lost a job. She raged that he had not told even her of his growing unhappiness in the company. She was frightened that he would lose any claim to their medical package.
Wigand recalled her mood as sometimes dismissive and unsympathetic. There are contradictory versions of the evening. According to Wigand, Lucretia “hit me in the back with a wooden coat hanger and ran upstairs into the bedroom.” Furious, he chased her and then called the police. According to Lucretia, “Because of the amount he drank, he does not remember most of the evening.… I tried to leave. He took my keys away and was grabbing me.… I picked up the phone to dial 911. He ripped the cord out of the wall. He smashed my nose with the palm of his hand. The kids were screaming, I was screaming. I ran down the hall and picked up another phone and dialed 911. Jeff left the house before the police arrived.” Whatever happened that night, Lucretia and Jeffrey Wigand both blame B&W for placing an unbearable strain on their marriage, and say that this episode played no part in their later divorce. Soon after, according to a lawyer close to the case, Wigand became concerned enough about his drinking that he checked into a clinic for four days of evaluation—which would later, in a 500-page dossier of allegations about his character, be reported as two weeks of hospitalization for treatment of anger.
Through an intermediary in the government, Wigand reached out tentatively to Andrew McGuire, whom he had observed in Washington. McGuire got a phone call: would he speak to a former R&D executive? McGuire was intrigued. A tobacco-industry witness could be invaluable to him, since he was then pressing Congress to regulate fire safety. “I don’t know if this guy is for real,” the government official told McGuire, “but here is his home number. Call him.” Wigand’s voice on the phone was so strained and wary that McGuire wondered if he might not be a tobacco-industry spy. Nevertheless, he passed his name along to Lowell Bergman.
For weeks Bergman tried to get Wigand on the telephone. Each time a woman answered, and she would tell him, “He is not home.” Finally she said, “He doesn’t want to talk to you.” Bergman had become fascinated by the court papers involving Philip Morris, and was convinced he needed this particular chemist to make sense of them. He wanted a scientist, not an anti-tobacco advocate. In February 1994, he decided to go to Louisville. “I did the old ‘call him at midnight’ maneuver. He answered the phone and I said, ‘If you are curious to meet me, I’ll be sitting in the lobby at the Seelbach Hotel tomorrow morning at 11 a.m.’”
At 11 a.m. a gray-haired man in a windbreaker appeared and said, “Are you Lowell?” Bergman looked up to see a portrait of middle-aged anxiety. “I said to him, ‘Let’s go have a coffee.’”
It was the beginning of an extraordinary relationship. Bergman’s presence in Wigand’s life would eventually inspire him to come forward as a whistle-blower. For Bergman, Wigand would become a source who needed unusual protection and hand-holding—a fact which would ultimately jeopardize his position at CBS. “As a person, the guy I met had been raped and violated,” Bergman said. Wigand told Bergman that he was suffering a “moral crisis.” He said that he had always considered himself a scientist, and he called the type of research that went on at B&W “a display of craft.”
“‘O.K.,’” Bergman recalled saying after their first day together, “‘you can’t talk to me about Brown & Williamson because of your severance agreement, but I have a problem. Can you analyze these documents for me?” He looked at two pages and said, “Wow!” After reading a few more pages about fire experiments, Wigand exclaimed, “Hey, they are way ahead of where we were.”
Wigand agreed to examine the Philip Morris papers for Bergman. He was to be paid like any other consultant, about $1,000 a day. “I was bothered. Everything I had seen at the joint-venture meetings said it was not technologically feasible,” he later told me. “I was pissed off! They had a fire-safe-product study on the shelf in 1986 and 1987, and they knew it!” (A spokesman for Philip Morris says the company has been unsuccessful in this so far but continues to do research.)
Wigand flew to New York for a day to attend a screening of a version of the projected program at CBS. At the end of March, CBS broadcast an exposé of the Hamlet project, which involved a fire-safe cigarette developed at Philip Morris. “I was angry when I saw it,” said Wigand. “They knew all along it was possible to develop a fire-safe cigarette, and they even gave it a code name: Hamlet. Get it? ‘To burn or not to burn.’”
At the end of the 60 Minutes episode, Mike Wallace questioned on-camera a Philip Morris executive who had announced that his company was filing a $10 billion lawsuit against ABC for a Day One broadcast about alleged manipulation of nicotine levels in its cigarettes. ABC had problems: one of them was a source nicknamed Deep Cough, who was an executive at RJR. If Deep Cough’s identity was to be kept a secret, she could not testify in a libel suit.
In April 1994, Henry Waxman, the California congressman, was holding public hearings on tobacco in Washington. Wigand watched the live coverage on C-SPAN of the testimony of top executives of the seven largest tobacco companies. He was in his den with Lucretia when he watched Andrew Tisch, the chairman of Lorillard, testify, “I believe nicotine is not addictive.” Then he heard Thomas Sandefur say the same thing. Wigand was furious. “I realized they were all liars. They lied with a straight face. Sandefur was arrogant! And that really irked me.” Wigand, however, was hamstrung; he had the threat of a lawsuit hanging over his head. He could not criticize Sandefur publicly or his child might lose her medical insurance.
After Wigand started working as a confidential expert for CBS, his name began to circulate in anti-tobacco circles. He was soon called by the Food and Drug Administration. Would he consider advising F.D.A. experts on cigarette chemistry? His identity would be protected. For Wigand, the invitation to Washington was a major step toward regaining his self-respect. By the time F.D.A. commissioner David Kessler appeared before Congress in June 1994, he had reportedly been tutored by Wigand on ammonia additives and nicotine-impact boosting.
Wigand was invaluable; he even helped the F.D.A. circumvent a standard tobacco-industry tactic—“document dumping.” If a company is subpoenaed for documents related to nicotine studies, it is common in the industry to respond “by driving a tractor-trailer to Washington and leaving 10 tons of documents at your door,” according to a close associate of the F.D.A. In this case, perhaps with an assist from Wigand, the F.D.A. was able to ask B&W for specific papers.
That month, Wigand said, he received a threatening phone call. “Leave or else you’ll find your kids hurt,” the caller said. Wigand called Bergman in a panic. “I thought it could be a crank call,” Bergman told me. “I knew Wigand was in a great quandary. He was bound up because of his contracts and yet he was filled with moral outrage.” Bergman had been through this before with whistle-blowers. He even had a name for Wigand’s mental state: “transition time.” He remained patient and faxed amusing drawings to Wigand’s children.
Soon Wigand told Bergman another death threat had come. Wigand was becoming distracted, unable to concentrate. He had started to drink again. “I used to come home and drink three fingers of booze every night,” he told me. One day when he had his two young daughters in the car, he stopped to buy a bottle of liquor. “I am no goddamned angel. I can’t hide what happened. I had one of those big jackets with the big pockets. Instead of getting a basket, I grabbed it and put it in my pocket. And then I realized I didn’t have cash. And I said, ‘Wait a minute,’ and I ran out. And then somebody came running after me. They said, ‘Somebody has been stealing in here before.’ The truth of the matter is that I had the bottle in my pocket. Was it hidden? No. Was it exposed? Yes. My children, Rachel and Nikki, were in the car. I had $300 in cash in the car. I said, ‘I have money. Look.’ I made sure that I showed the cop the money. Was it intentional? It was two days after the death threat. I wasn’t thinking. Why would I want to steal a $10 bottle of booze? Give me a break. The whole thing was dismissed without adjudication. You can be arrested and charged with a lot of things in your life. Did you know that even Thomas Sandefur was once arrested and pleaded guilty on a D.W.I.?”