The Secret Affair of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Philip Morris

The best-kept secret in the halls of Congress -- until today -- may have been the extent to which New York's new senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, helped cigarette maker Philip Morris during her former employment as an attorney with the global law firm Davis, Polk & Wardwell. Information about her relationship with the cigarette maker wasn't included in her official biography or her campaign materials, but on Friday, March 27, 2009, the New York Times published an article describing in detail how Gillibrand, under her maiden name Kirsten Rutnik, was involved at high levels in the legal affairs of Philip Morris.

In 1998, as an attorney at Davis Polk, Gillibrand served on Philip Morris' Privilege and Crime Fraud Committee, an elite group of attorneys from both inside and outside Philip Morris. Some of Gillibrand's colleagues on the Committee were full partners in their respective law firms, which reveals the respect she earned in her service to the company.

Purpose of the Crime Fraud Committee

In the 1990s, tobacco companies faced mounting accusations that the industry had been misusing attorney-client privilege to shield damaging research and sensitive documents from plaintiffs in court cases. These challenges reached their height in 1997 in Minnesota's lawsuit against the tobacco industry. Lawyers for Minnesota charged the companies with using lawyers to unjustly shield sensitive documents, saying they were thus committing fraud, and thus privilege did not apply. A Minnesota judge agreed, saying that Philip Morris had engaged in an “egregious attempt to hide information.” The tobacco company fought all the way to the Supreme Court to keep their documents hidden, but, in a major blow to the industry, the Court forced the release of 39,000 pages of damaging documents that showed the industry was aware of the addictive nature of nicotine, that they had experimented with varying dose levels, and more.

In June, 1997, the U.S. House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight filed a Minority Staff Report charging attorneys from the major U.S. tobacco companies with misusing attorney-client privilege to shield key documents about the health implications of their products, and saying that the companies thus had advanced corporate crime or fraud.

It was amid this climate that PM formed its Privilege and Crime-Fraud Committee. The committee's job was to scrutinize documents to determine if they had been improperly shielded under attorney-client privilege, but in essence, the committee was charged with keeping plaintiffs or the government from seeing sensitive documents that Philip Morris wanted to keep secret.

Senator Gillibrand was also involved with legal matters at PM's overseas lab in Cologne, Germany, Institut Fur Biologische Forschung, (or Institute for Biological Research, known inside PM as INBIFO). At this laboratory PM studied topics such as the health effects of inhaling secondhand smoke, and the role of tobacco in forming cancerous tumors. Performing such sensitive research in a foreign country allowed PM to keep the results beyond the reach of the United States government, news media and plaintiffs’ lawyers.

A former colleague of Gillibrand's at Davis Polk, Vincent Chang, told the Times that Davis, Polk lawyers were permitted to decline to work on the tobacco cases if they had a moral or ethical objection to the work. However, Ms. Gillibrand did not decline to work for PM, a company whose products contribute to the untimely deaths of over 400,000 Americans annually, and millions more worldwide. Instead, she represented the tobacco company with skill and zeal enough to make her a highly respected member of PM's legal team.

Sometimes it isn't what is include in a person's official resume' that's important. It's what isn't.


"As a member of Congress, Senator Gillibrand has a record of supporting strong measures to reduce tobacco use. Senator Gillibrand several times voted for legislation, now law, to significantly increase federal tobacco taxes to fund expansion of the State Childen's Health Insurance Program. As a member of the House, she also co-sponsored and voted for legislation to grant the FDA authority over the manufacturing, marketing and sale of tobacco products." - Matthew L. Myers, President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids

A comment was submitted to this page under my name. I did not submit a comment to this piece and did not authorize anyone else to submit a comment to this piece on my behalf. The factual content of the statement is an accurate recitation of a quote I gave unrelated to the New York Times article in response to a request about Senator Gillibrand's voting record since coming to Congress. Matthew L. Myers

Hi Matt, Two points: 1) The quote, whilst attributed to you, does not purport to have been posted by you. Under the quote it clearly indicates that it was "submitted by Anonymous". So I doubt that readers will think that it was submitted by you. 2) You wrote that the quote was one you "gave unrelated to the New York Times article". It is not quite clear whether you mean that you made this statement in some other context or not. If so, then when was it made? Or did you mean that you sent this comment to Ray Hernandez and David Kocieniewski when they were preparing their story not after it was published?

Compare and contrast: Gillibrand's past association with corporate law and tobacco, Hillary Clinton's past association with Walmart (almost an identical deal, and Walmart also sells a lot of tobacco), and Orrin Hatch's deals with drug companies - he's among their biggest lifetime recipients of drug funds, and he was just caught getting hundreds of thousands of dollars from drug companies via his charity - far worse than Gillibrand, but dead silence on the media - probably because Hatch played a key role on the Senate Finance Committee in the Daschle affair, which had health care and pharma cheering.

The article says that Gillibrand "helped" PM and then it talks about legal matters and studying the affects of inhaling secondhand smoke and the like. I am not sure wha the big objection to all of this is. She was an attorney at the time, not a legislator. If an attorney takes on ANY case that the public deems "wrong", does that mean they can NEVER be a legislator?

There are ethical issues for consideration here. For example, between 1981 and 1989 [[Philip Morris]] performed at least 115 studies at their lab in Cologne, Germany, called INBIFO, on the [ toxicity of secondhand tobacco smoke]. The studies revealed that inhaled fresh secondhand smoke is approximately four times more toxic per gram in its total particulate matter than mainstream cigarette smoke (the smoke the smoker himself inhales). The condensate (commonly known as "tar") derived from secondhand smoke is approximately three times more toxic per gram and two to six times more tumorigenic per gram than that of mainstream smoke when applied to skin. Philip Morris never brought the results of these studies to the attention of any government of public health authority. Quite the opposite; they performed these studies in foreign countries to keep the results out of American media and court cases. Was Ms. Gillibrand, in her capacity as an attorney, helping PM continue to shield this information from the public? She traveled to INBIFO and worked with the scientists there.