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Commentary | COLUMN LEFT / ROBERT SCHEER

Setting Fire to Tobacco Legislation

Kenneth Starr lives in a glass house when it comes to conflicting duties.

July 28, 1998|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor. E-mail: rscheer@robertscheer.com

They should name a new cigarette brand after Kenneth Starr. One aimed at adolescent smokers who might thereby be better able to recall the independent counsel when they get lung cancer.

Whatever his motives, and they may be as varied as they are murky, the gutting of anti-tobacco legislation has been the main achievement of Starr's constant efforts to undermine Bill Clinton. No group has benefited as much from the weakening of this president as the tobacco industry, which employs Starr as a legal hit man.

Clinton is the first president to seriously try to bring the tobacco industry to heel, particularly in its seduction of the young. The failure of that effort at the hands of the GOP is his most stunning defeat.

It's unconscionable that Starr, while so aggressively pursuing the president, represents Big Tobacco when its very fate is being decided in the battle between the president and the pro-tobacco, Republican-controlled Congress.

The toadying of the Republican leadership can be explained by the huge contributions of the tobacco lobby, which treats the Democratic Party as its worst enemy. Recently, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), Big Tobacco's most indefatigable foe, revealed that the tobacco companies routinely make their corporate jets available for leading Republicans, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. When I asked Waxman to explain Congress' failure to pass tobacco regulation, he replied:

"The tobacco industry is Washington's most powerful special interest. It gives millions more in campaign contributions than any other industry. Its fleet of private jets has become the official airline of the Republican Party. And when the companies wanted to be sure to get President Clinton's attention, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. hired Ken Starr--the one man with unlimited power to investigate the president--to be their lawyer."

Starr's conflict of interest is long-standing. In 1995, when he was investigating Clinton's involvement in Whitewater, he represented Brown & Williamson in a lawsuit against Waxman and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). The members of Congress had revealed that Brown & Williamson had known for 30 years that nicotine was addictive but had concealed that information from the public.

Joseph A. Califano Jr., who was Health secretary in the Carter administration, testified that had that information been known at the time, "the 1979 surgeon-general's report would have found cigarettes addictive, and we would have moved to regulate them." The surgeon-general did not rule that cigarettes are addictive until 1988. Smoking causes 400,000 deaths a year; I leave it to readers to do the depressing math here.

Not at all contrite, Brown & Williamson took the offensive and said that internal company documents were leaked by a paralegal employee which, Starr argued unsuccessfully before an appellate court in 1995, violated attorney-client privilege. This is the same Starr who seeks to bring Clinton's lawyer before a grand jury, attorney-client privilege be damned.

If Starr had been on the other side of the tobacco debate, it's doubtful that he would have gotten the special prosecutor appointment at all. He was chosen by a three-judge panel led by David B. Sentelle, a hometown protege of North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, Big Tobacco's most loyal soldier; Helms had sponsored Sentelle, a former county Republican chairman in North Carolina, for the federal bench.

Just prior to Starr's appointment, Sentelle had lunch on Capitol Hill with Helms and Lauch Faircloth, another pro-tobacco senator from North Carolina. It was Faircloth who had led the attack on Robert Fiske, Starr's predecessor as Whitewater independent counsel. Fiske, a Republican and a respected leader of the American Bar Assn., who unlike Starr took a leave of absence from his law practice, was removed on the grounds that his appointment by Atty. Gen. Janet Reno created the appearance, though not the fact, of a conflict of interest. Clearly, Starr has both.

Shortly after Starr's appointment, Sentelle's wife went to work in Faircloth's Senate office. It is Sentelle who has since approved the ever-expanding scope of Starr's investigation.

Helms and Faircloth are the two leading recipients of tobacco money in the Senate and have voted consistently to scuttle any serious legislation holding Big Tobacco responsible for its assault on the health of the American public. How convenient to have their man Starr tormenting the president at the very moment when Clinton was doing battle with Big Tobacco. Am I alone in thinking that there is something deeply disturbing about this picture?

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