Tobacco Firm Paid Watchdog Group Group Posed As Independent, Criticized Trial Lawyers’ Clout

A non-profit group that bills itself as an independent watchdog hid that it was funded by Philip Morris Cos., working out an elaborate strategy to keep the link quiet after it had investigated a prime tobacco enemy, company documents show.

Contributions Watch says it is a non-partisan group aimed at improving campaign finance disclosure, and it recently reported that trial lawyers have given political candidates more than $100 million since 1990.

But documents obtained by The Associated Press show Contributions Watch was formed by a lobbying firm, State Affairs Co., that frequently represents Philip Morris.

Contributions Watch investigated the trial lawyers for Philip Morris. The lawyers and tobacco companies are battling over state liability laws, and political contributions can be a measure of a special interest group’s influence.

But Contributions Watch would say at the time only that groups interested in legal reform had funded the work.

Its attorneys prepared quotes last spring to help director Warren Miller sidestep answering who had funded the study, and attorney Henry Hart even wrote Miller that federally required financial data on tax-exempt groups would be filed too late for newspapers to use.

“It is the first time we have seen a group pose as being evenhanded that turns out to be nothing but a public-relations front for a major firm,” said Ellen Miller of the Center for Responsive Politics. She said her group discloses its own funding, which comes mostly from foundations.

“When a group blatantly and deceptively lies - that was the fascinating thing, the extent to which the group went to avoid talking about its backing,” she said.

Philip Morris denied Monday ever telling Contributions Watch to keep its involvement a secret and noted that the tobacco giant’s own political contributions are reported widely while groups such as the trial lawyers often are ignored.

“No one has questioned the data or the accuracy of” the trial lawyers’ political expenditures, said Philip Morris spokeswoman Karen Daragan.

She would not say how much Philip Morris had paid for the study but added that secrecy is “not a concern of ours, and we’re proud and pleased to support them and will continue to do so.”

State Affairs Co. and Contributions Watch officials declined to be interviewed.


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