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Flashback Tobacco Rolled
November 19, 2008
“When Merrell Williams showed me that first document, ... I knew that what I had in my hand right there was enough, I thought, to put some chief executive officers of the tobacco industry behind bars.”
When the state of Mississippi first went after Big Tobacco, the cigarette companies had never lost a smoker lawsuit. Ten years ago this week, their winning streak ended, dramatically, with the largest civil settlement in American history -- over $200 billion.
Soon after, FRONTLINE told the story in a film called Inside the Tobacco Deal. The film was aptly named -- our correspondent, Lowell Bergman, had broken the story as a 60 Minutes producer. Later, Bergman would be played by Al Pacino in The Insider, a big screen Hollywood version of the same events.
The Hollywood film focuses on Bergman's relationship with Jeffrey Wigand, the disaffected tobacco company scientist (played by Russell Crowe) who blew the fateful whistle. True, but not the whole truth: before Wigand, there was another whistleblower, by the name of Merrell Williams, who did not make the cut on the Hollywood film. Unlike Wigand, Williams had his fifteen minutes of fame and disappeared, but without him, none of what followed would have happened. This excerpt from the FRONTLINE hour puts Merrell Williams, however briefly, back in the picture, and addresses a difficult question regarding his role: is a whistleblower who steals confidential documents from his employer a hero or a thief?
p.s. A footnote: Richard Scruggs, the high-powered attorney who led the charge against the tobacco industry, and made nearly a billion dollars for his firm in the process, is now serving a five-year prison term for bribing a judge in a later (unrelated) case. That story is told in a recent New Yorker profile.