After having been made aware of a misleading and potentially very serious and damaging personal attack on its web site, Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights (ANR) has apparently decided to retain the misleading communication and not to clarify it. My reason for inferring that such a decision has been made is that the misleading charge remains on its web site as of this morning, a full two weeks after the accusation was first made and ANR was made aware of its potentially misleading nature.
The attack is on Associate Attorney General Robert McCallum who is now directing the Department of Justice's lawsuit against the tobacco companies. ANR has informed the public that McCallum is "a former tobacco industry lawyer."
However, my research as well as the best available information seems to reveal that McCallum has never represented any tobacco company. The Department of Justice has issued a statement which I interpret as denying that McCallum ever represented a tobacco client.
ANR has defended its statement by claiming that since McCallum was a partner at a law firm that represented R.J. Reynolds, he becomes a tobacco industry lawyer automatically because he presumably received income from that case, although he did not participate in it.
The Rest of the Story
While I find ANR's interpretation of the term "tobacco industry lawyer" to be overly broad, its response and its failure to clarify the statement demonstrate that it is missing my underlying concern: that it is unethical for a public health organization to mislead the public in order to stir them to political action, especially when the misleading statement impugns the character of an individual.
So it hardly matters whether a partner in a law firm is an attorney for any company that does business with that law firm regardless of whether she represents the firm herself. What matters is whether the public is likely to interpret ANR's attack to mean that McCallum has previously represented the tobacco industry and is now litigating against the industry.
If the public interprets the charge this way, then it is being seriously misled, and in a way that seriously denigrates McCallum's character. Such an action would represent an egregious violation of standards of ethical conduct for attorneys and it would permanently mar McCallum's public image and perhaps his professional image as well.
On the other hand, if McCallum was simply a partner at a law firm that represented R.J. Reynolds in patent issues that he had nothing to do with directly, then the issue of a conflict of interest becomes more complex and if there is an ethical violation, it is far less serious and will likely have far less of a damaging impact on McCallum's public and professional image.
Note that I am not arguing here the issue of whether McCallum's involvement in the DOJ case represents a conflict of interest. It may very well. I am simply arguing that in an effort to publicly malign McCallum, it is inappropriate for ANR to mislead the public into thinking that he has represented the tobacco industry previously, and is therefore committing one of the most blatant, obvious, and egregious ethical violations possible for an attorney.
ANR is entitled to malign McCallum using the facts and using tactics that will give the public a proper understanding of who he is. And there is nothing stopping ANR from putting in a simple clarification that would avoid any possibility of misinterpretation of the facts.
But the apparent decision by ANR to retain what I think is clearly a misleading statement, invoked as part of a public attack on the character of an individual, is a serious ethical problem.