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IN-THE-SPOTLIGHT

Smoking Out Secrets

The Detective Agency That George L. Barnes Founded Is a Tobacco-Industry Trump Card in Suit After Suit

July 27, 1997|MYRON LEVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The tobacco industry has been good to George L. Barnes--and vice versa.

A high school dropout who built a lucrative career as a private investigator, Barnes for years was the eyes and ears of Big Tobacco. Nowadays, the 63-year-old former gumshoe lives in sumptuous retirement in Las Vegas and on the Oregon coast.

But Barnes & Associates, the Los Angeles detective agency he founded and later sold to his three children, continues to fill a unique niche as a leading trouble-shooter for cigarette makers. Intensely publicity-shy, the Barnes agency has managed to remain nearly invisible even as tobacco's immense legal battles make headlines every day.

Barnes pioneered the exhaustive background probes of tobacco plaintiffs that have helped the industry preserve what has been (notwithstanding the proposed tobacco settlement) a near-perfect courtroom record.

When a sick smoker or his family sues a tobacco company, investigators fan out throughout the country in search of everyone who ever knew him. Disarmingly friendly, they quiz relatives, ex-neighbors and old fishing pals about the plaintiff's work and smoking history, whether high school teachers and coaches warned him about smoking, if he handled toxic chemicals, had extramarital affairs or got into scrapes with the law.

Searching public records and even cemetery plots, they also assemble an elaborate family tree showing what the last five or six generations of the smoker's family died of.

These encyclopedic profiles are used to flesh out the industry's time-tested defense--which holds that the plaintiff made a personal choice to smoke despite the warnings, and, besides, got sick from another cause.

Anti-tobacco lawyers complain that the intensive scrutiny serves another purpose too--intimidating some clients into giving up their claims to keep embarrassing personal information from becoming public.

"Every effort is made . . . to uncover every 'piece of dirt' on the client," said Dan Childs, a Philadelphia lawyer who has battled the industry. "Fights with children, run-ins with the law . . . are all looked for."

No Expense Spared

The tobacco industry is not unique in using private investigators. But more than other litigants, the $50-billion-a-year industry spares no expense in preparing for trial, which means learning all there is to know about its adversaries.

"They [tobacco companies] do the most thorough background investigation I have ever seen," said Howard Acosta, a Florida plaintiffs' lawyer involved in cigarette cases. "It is more than the FBI or the CIA would do, as far as I'm concerned."

Former Barnes investigators agree.

"The investigation we did for the tobacco companies . . . was the most perfect background investigation that you could do, at horrible expense," said Douglas Baldwin, a former Barnes operative who now runs his own Los Angeles private investigation firm.

"We would go to cemeteries in the middle of nowhere," Baldwin recalled. "We would go to courthouses and spend all day looking for birth certificates."

Although cigarette makers also have used investigators other than Barnes, the Los Angeles firm "is still the major player," said Gary Long, a senior partner with the law firm of Shook, Hardy & Bacon, a leading tobacco defense firm.

The relationship is expected to survive the proposed $368.5-billion tobacco settlement that is now before Congress. If ratified, the deal will bar class actions and lawsuits by states, but will not stop suits by individual smokers--Barnes' specialty. As a result, the firm should stay busy for years.

Barnes also has helped cigarette makers outside the courtroom. In 1995, for example, Barnes operatives filed sweeping public-records requests with at least 19 California counties and cities, seeking information on problems with enforcement of public smoking laws.

While not disclosing in the letters who its client was, an industry lawyer told The Times that Barnes was helping Philip Morris Cos. gather ammunition to fight a proposed workplace smoking ban by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Information about the Barnes firm--headquartered in a suite of offices on Wilshire Boulevard's Miracle Mile--is hard to come by, and both generations of Barneses mean to keep it that way.

George Barnes agreed to be interviewed about his personal background but would not discuss his tobacco work. The firm's current president, James E. Barnes, a 42-year-old lawyer and the second of the three children, was even less forthcoming.

The firm's investigators "accumulate information honestly, legally and without coercion," James Barnes said in a letter declining an interview request. But he said little beyond that. Even how many people he employs is something "I could tell you, but I'd really rather not," he said.

However, The Times compiled a portrait of the Barneses and their business through court records and interviews with former company investigators and with lawyers involved in tobacco litigation.

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