Congresswoman worked for industry leader as private attorney

Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Thursday, October 16, 2008

ALBANY -- You won't learn about it by reading campaign literature or looking at her official biography, but Congresswoman Kirsten E. Gillibrand represented tobacco giant Philip Morris for five years as it battled criminal probes and civil lawsuits.

Today, the company and its executives continue to count her as a friend, donating at least $23,200 to her current campaign, public records show.

Gillibrand says she is independent and not influenced by money from the Altria Group, Philip Morris's parent company.

In fact, the Columbia County Democrat, now seeking re-election, has voted in favor of all three bills pushed by anti-tobacco lobbyists and passed by the House of Representatives.

Yet, in Congress Gillibrand remains one of the bigger recipients of Altria funds.

"I didn't know one way or the other that the company had contributed," she said. "We have 10,000 contributors right now. I don't know all of them."

In contrast, her neighbor, Congressman Michael McNulty, D-Green Island, received just one $500 check from the company during his 20-year career. He sent the money back.

"I didn't want to take money from a tobacco company,'' McNulty said.

Gillibrand said her work as a tobacco industry lawyer was all above board. It focused on assembly of information sought by federal investigators looking into claims that Philip Morris was involved in crimes against consumers, she said.

Anti-smoking activists, who count her as a supporter, were unaware she had once represented Philip Morris. "I did not know that," said Bill Corr, executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "What's important to us is how she votes."

Corr said his organization urges elected officials to refuse campaign funds from cigarette companies.

Gillibrand's history with Philip Morris was publicized on the Internet Wednesday on a blog written by Christopher Chichester, a former press aide to Gov. George Pataki, a Republican. The first-term congresswoman's opponent this year is Sandy Treadwell, Pataki's secretary of state and a former state GOP chairman.

Gillibrand represented Philip Morris during its defense of civil lawsuits and FBI criminal probes from 1995 to 1999, a time when the company was besieged by legal challenges mounted by states, individual smokers and the Department of Justice.

The congresswoman was unmarried and was Kirsten Rutnik at the time. Her father, Douglas Rutnik, has been a lobbyist for Philip Morris and now Altria in Albany. He received $75,000 from the company for his work in 2006, records show.

Gillibrand's tobacco work consumed most of her time at the Davis, Polk & Wardwell law firm in New York City, which billed Philip Morris $305 an hour for her. She rose to be senior associate on the Philip Morris matter, focusing on allegations of fraud and crimes, according to public records obtained by the Times Union.

Her efforts took her to a secretive lab in Germany set up by Philip Morris to do sensitive research.

An advantage to the lab, according to company documents that later became public, is that German research cannot readily be subpoenaed in the United States.

Gillibrand took notes on the research. The studies involved toxic effects of tobacco smoke. She also interviewed scientists studying cancer-causing potential in cigarettes.

She wrote several internal memos, at least one about lawyer involvement in the labs, and authored letters to Philip Morris lawyers about an FBI and federal grand jury probe into alleged nicotine spiking, according to public summaries of sealed tobacco industry legal documents. One of the confidential memos discussed how to deal with media questions.

The FBI case did not result in an indictment. The Department of Justice instead pursued a civil racketeering lawsuit that was successful, with a federal judge chastising Philip Morris for falsely denying and distorting the adverse health consequences of smoking. The ruling is on appeal.

State cases against the company concluded with a 1998 national settlement with the tobacco industry that reaped $240 billion to help defray Medicaid costs for treating people sickened by smoking.

In an interview, Gillibrand, 41, freely discussed her Philip Morris work. She characterized it as providing due process rights to a client. She said that although she does not include it in her biography, she did not hide it and has spoken to reporters about it in the past. She was a smoker for years but quit. She recommends against using tobacco products.

Gillibrand said she became an expert in attorney-client privilege while working for Philip Morris.

Anti-tobacco lawyers complain the tobacco industry hid too much of what it knew about the dangers of its products by letting lawyers manage the information.

The University of California at San Francisco has published millions of records from the tobacco settlement on the Internet. A search of Kirsten E. Rutnik calls up hundreds of titled records under seal.

"I don't think clients you represented as an associate are relevant," said Gillibrand. "I think how you vote is relevant.'' As an associate, she had no control of the cases she received.

Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine and director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at UCSF, disagreed. "I think it's highly relevant because she was an active advocate in one of the world's biggest tobacco companies against claims that they were manipulating the nicotine delivery in cigarettes."

He said he suspects Philip Morris is investing in her for the long term. The sums they've donated, he said, are significant. "These are very important things she was doing for them," he said. "I think this is definitely newsworthy. If she had done this 10 years ago and hadn't gotten a nickle from them, then I'd say, 'well, she was just a junior member of the law firm.' But they consider her their pal."

He and Buffalo-based Roswell Park Cancer Institute researcher Michael Cummings said her past work and acceptance of tobacco dollars speak to her ethics.

"Big law firms have other clients," said Cummings. "You could work for somebody else." He said no politician should accept money from Philip Morris.

Gillibrand has raised more than $3.95 million for her 2008 run. Some of the top contributors are lawyers who worked for her two former law firms: $120,150 from Davis, Polk, and $230,631 from Boies, Schiller and Flexner.

She said she was unfamiliar with her father's work for Philip Morris, although she knows Rutnik lobbied for Altria. "I don't talk to my dad about his clients at all," she said.

Gillibrand, who makes her calendar public, met with Altria aides to discuss tobacco regulation last May. Three of the five Altria officials scheduled to attend made donations to her campaign.

Bill Phelps of Altria, said: "We support candidates who we believe are the right candidates for their constituency. Our support for candidates is based on a matrix of our legislative issues and their legislative issues. On issues we feel strongly about we make our positions known. We see her as a legislator we support."

McNulty was not perplexed when told Gillibrand accepted tobacco money.

"Maybe that's what I should have done - taken the money and continued to vote against them," he said. "She is not in the pocket of anybody. Kirsten Gillibrand is not for sale to anybody at any price."

Researchers Sarah J. Hinman and Laurie Northrup contributed to this report.