Friday, June 24, 2005

Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights Defends its Unqualified Claim that Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum is a Former Tobacco Industry Lawyer

Apparently in response to The Rest of the Story's questioning of its action alert telling the public that Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum is a "former tobacco industry lawyer," Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights (ANR) has posted a web page defending its action alert and attempting to clarify its original claim.

In defense of its communication to the public that McCallum is a former tobacco industry lawyer, ANR explains that: "The mechanics of a law firm operate so that partners act as 'shareholders', receiving income based on ALL billable hours that a firm collects. Unless Mr. McCallum can prove that he received no income from any hours billed to R.J. Reynolds and collected by his firm, then in fact, Mr. McCallum IS a tobacco industry lawyer."

The Rest of the Story

Setting aside for now ANR's interpretation of the term "tobacco industry lawyer," ANR's defense of its action alert demonstrates the precise problem that I am trying to point out here: that ANR does not seem to be concerned about misleading the public in order to elicit their support in issuing a personal attack on an individual and a political attack on the administration.

Regardless of how ANR interprets the term "tobacco industry lawyer," what matters is how the public interprets the term. In my view, in my judgment of how the public would likely interpret the phrase, and in light of my own questioning of members of the public to determine how they actually do interpret the phrase, it is clear to me that people have and will interpret the phrase to mean that McCallum had formerly represented tobacco companies directly, as an individual, in tobacco legal matters.

Thus, even if ANR may have its own interpretation of the term, the basic point is that the term is misleading to the public. And I believe that since ANR is now apparently aware of the concern about the potential for misinterpretation of the term, its failure to clarify it must be construed as an intentional failure to clarify. In other words, it is satisfied that the public may misinterpret its action alert in a substantial way.

The public's likely misinterpretation of this important information is critical, because it is going to have substantial implications for how the public views McCallum's character. If the public believes he was a partner in a law firm that did tobacco industry work but that he has never represented a tobacco client in his life, then I believe the public will perceive much less of an egregious violation of ethical standards by this individual. However, if the public believes he represented a tobacco company in the past, then I believe the public will perceive this individual as having egregiously violated ethical standards by participating in the DOJ tobacco lawsuit and his character and reputation will be completely shot in the public's eye.

If ANR is going to contribute to diminishing the character and reputation of an individual in the public's eye, then I think it should at least be based on an accurate perception of the truth by the public.

Now, to the explanation itself. If ANR truly views any attorney who is a partner in a firm as being a lawyer for every company that has any business dealings with that firm, then I guess that is their prerogative. But I find it quite a stretch.

Are they really suggesting that if I am a partner in a firm that managed the closing for a new building that Smith & Wesson was purchasing, but I had no direct involvement in the case, that I am a gun industry lawyer? Someone has to handle those legal matters. Does it make every partner in that law firm a gun lawyer?

And are they really suggesting that if I am a partner in a law firm that managed the patent protection for a new brand of wine, but I had no direct involvement in the case, that I am an alcohol industry lawyer?

I find the suggestion to be an overly broad interpretation of the term. Because the clear implication of the term gun lawyer or alcohol industry lawyer or even tobacco industry lawyer is that the lawyer represented that company.

To make matters worse, in clarifying its statement on its web site, ANR apparently failed to link the explanation to the action alert. I can find no link from the action alert page to the page that contains the clarification. So there is basically no chance that the public will see the clarification.

So it takes ANR a full page to clarify its charge that McCallum is a former tobacco industry lawyer but they don't take the simple action of either:
  • clarifying the statement on the action alert page so that the public is not misled; or
  • linking to the clarifying statement so that there is at least an opportunity for the public to obtain a clear explanation of the otherwise likely misleading claim.
But the clincher is that in describing a number of DOJ political appointees that ANR claims have tobacco industry ties, it describes McCallum as simply a former tobacco industry lawyer, while it describes Attorney General Chief of Staff Theodore Ullyot not as a former tobacco industry lawyer, but as "a former partner in a law firm representing Brown & Williamson in the DOJ suit." Why the distinction between McCallum and Ullyot? Why does having been a partner in a law firm that represented the industry warrant McCallum a description as a former tobacco industry lawyer, while Ullyot gets a fuller and more accurate (and less likely misleading) description as having been a partner in a law firm that represented the industry?

There is no reason, whatsoever, why ANR cannot be clear about the matter, and explain in the action alert, as they did on the clarifying web page, that Mc Callum was a "partner at a law firm that represented R.J. Reynolds." What possible harm could be done by providing an explanation that is exquisitely clear and does not risk misleading people into believing something that is not true?

The rest of the story suggests that ANR is more concerned about its own political objectives, including attacking the tobacco industry and anyone that it thinks has any affiliation with it, than with being careful to provide information to the public that is accurate and not misleading. Attacking individuals with tobacco industry affiliations may feel good, but as a tobacco control practitioner, it does not feel good to me to have an organization upon which I was previously a Board Member mislead the public in such a critical way - all in order to issue a personal attack on an individual who never represented the tobacco industry in his life.

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