OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss. — Merrell Williams, the mole who became the tobacco industry's worst nightmare, hardly seemed suited to the role. He had floated from one dreary job to the next, never staying very long in one place. Unfortunately for Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., after Williams was hired as a lowly document analyst with access to company secrets, he grew intensely committed to his work. For four nerve-racking years, Williams led a secret life in Louisville, Ky., stealing and copying thousands of pages of confidential records. When he funneled the documents to Congress and the press in 1994, the impact was immediate and profound.
Hardened industry critics, accustomed to thinking the worst of the cigarette makers, were shocked by the disclosures. The papers became the focus of two books and an entire issue of the Journal of the American Medical Assn. They triggered a perjury investigation of top tobacco executives, who had testified in congressional hearings that nicotine was not addictive, just before the documents hit Capitol Hill.
Emboldened by Williams' audacious act, other whistle-blowers and defectors--such as Brown & Williamson's Jeffrey Wigand and Philip Morris' Ian Uydess--began coming forward with disclosures of their own.
In fact, Williams, now 55, and the purloined documents figure heavily in all of tobacco's current woes--from multibillion-dollar damage suits and pending criminal investigations to the threat of regulation by the Food and Drug Administration. With the ripples still surging outward, neither Williams nor the mighty industry will ever be the same.
Whatever judgment is made about his character and motives, the documents themselves assure Williams' place in history. Hundreds of individuals, perhaps even thousands, were well-positioned to do as he did, and some no doubt were so inclined. Only Williams was (choose your adjective) brave, reckless or devious enough.
Not surprisingly, tobacco foes see him as a moral hero in the mold of Oskar Schindler, or Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers' fame. Rep. Pete Stark (D-Hayward) even introduced a resolution to honor Williams with a congressional medal for exposing "the plot to murder millions and millions of Americans."
But such testimonials have barely soothed Williams' battered morale. A lonely and troubled man whose story tumbles out in rambling and disjointed fragments, he is alternately morose and defiant, a captive of his notoriety and obsession with tobacco. Hunkered down in this coastal town, where hot winds fan the murky waters of the Gulf of Mexico, he waits for the other shoe to drop.
Because he violated a court order in Kentucky that prohibits him from disseminating the documents, Williams could be sent to jail. And B&W has pursued him through the courts, portraying him in two lawsuits as a conniving opportunist.
The third-leading U.S. cigarette maker, whose brands include Kool and Viceroy, has marshaled some intriguing facts to bolster its claim.
About the same time he leaked the documents, the impecunious Williams benefited from spectacular generosity. His benefactor was Richard Scruggs, a prominent anti-tobacco lawyer from Pascagoula, Miss., who piled the stolen documents into his Learjet and airlifted them to Congress.
In May 1994, Scruggs bought Williams a three-bedroom house in Ocean Springs, just west of Pascagoula, for about $110,000. He also bought Williams a $15,000 sailboat and co-signed loans for two cars. When a couple of paralegal jobs Scruggs arranged for Williams did not work out, Scruggs began giving him $3,000 monthly for living expenses--help he provides to this day.
As far as B&W is concerned, Williams did nothing more noble than trade stolen property for expensive goodies.
"In any circumstance other than the tobacco companies, everyone in the world would be horrified to learn that a legal employee who is supposed to hold your business confidential has breached that trust [and] escaped off with some stolen documents," said Richard A. Schneider, an attorney for King & Spaulding of Atlanta, one of B&W's law firms.
"It is indicative of the times we are in if this guy is going to be perceived as a . . . hero."
Williams and Scruggs insist there was no quid pro quo.
"Merrell Williams is not the first person I have helped who I thought needed help and I thought had done a public service," said Scruggs, who made a fortune in asbestos litigation.
Williams "was down and out, he was broke, and he was beleaguered," Scruggs said. "I made the decision to help him out. I thought he did a very brave and wise thing. He didn't steal documents with the idea that he was going to peddle them."
Besides, said Scruggs, he merely made a loan.
"He owes me the money," Scruggs said. "I hope he will pay me back."