Fred Thompson: The Philip Morris Candidate

Fred Thompson: The Philip Morris Candidate

If Fred Thompson is elected president, he will be the first federally registered lobbyist to become Commander in Chief. Since his days as top minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee, Thompson has collected over $1 million in lobbying fees. In return, he has provided exceptional access to those in power.

Thompson's prospective presidential bid stands out in another respect: No campaign has been so dominated by staffers and advisers who have worked on behalf of Philip Morris, one of the world's leading tobacco conglomerates and a leading force in promoting cigarette smoking.

Thompson's lobbying career demonstrates his striking skill in capitalizing on his own government service and on the success of his friends in public office.

In 1981, when the Republicans took control of the Senate, Thompson's employer and mentor, Senator Howard Baker, became Majority Leader. With Baker's rise to power, Thompson's lobbying fees from Westinghouse and other clients shot up from a paltry $2,575 in 1980 to $100,438 in 1981 -- then a considerable sum.

That was peanuts compared to the fees Thompson got from just one lobbying client 23 years later, after another Tennessee friend, Bill Frist, was elected Senate Majority Leader.

Equitas, a British firm seeking to minimize the cost of damages to Lloyds of London under pending legislation governing asbestos liability (asbestos is a known cause of respiratory diseases and of mesothelioma, a lethal lung cancer) in 2004 hired Thompson as part of a massive, $7.88 million lobbying drive.

For two years' work, which consisted primarily in guaranteeing Equitas access to Senator Frist, Thompson was paid $760,000.

As for Thompson's personal ties to Philip Morris, they are evident not so much in the tobacco company's contributions to him -- just $13,000 to his two Senate campaigns -- but in how loaded his still unannounced presidential campaign is with people strongly tied to the tobacco company and its parent company, Altria.

Take Tom Collamore, who is expected to become Thompson's campaign manager. In 1992, Collamore went to work for Philip Morris and later became vice president of public affairs at Altria.

Howard Baker, who has been a top adviser to Thompson, represented Philip Morris as a lobbyist at Baker Donelson Bearman Berman Caldwell & Berkowitz in 1998 and 1999. Baker was paid $1.92 million for his work. In addition Baker represented four other tobacco companies during that period and received another $1.71 million from them.

In the 1990s, Philip Morris financed the creation of a pro-smoking citizens' group called the National Smokers Alliance to fight anti-tobacco initiatives. Much of the actual organization of the Smokers' Alliance was performed by a Washington public relations firm, Burson-Marsteller. One of the key players at Burson-Marsteller involved in the Smokers' Alliance was Ken Rietz, who recently retired as CEO.

Rietz is now coordinating much of the early media strategy for the Thompson campaign.

Finally, the campaign is expected to hire the polling firm McLaughlin & Associates. The polling company lists both Philip Morris and the National Smokers' Alliance among its clients.

Philip Morris has been one of the strongest corporate backers of the GOP. From 1994 to 2002, the last year corporations were permitted to make direct "soft money" contributions to the political parties, Philip Morris gave $9.5 million to Republican committees and $1.28 million to their Democratic counterparts.

Mark Corallo, spokesman for the Thompson bid, said all of the campaign's staffers and advisers have been picked because of their expertise and, in some cases, their long-standing relationships with Thompson.

"This is hardly a story," Corallo said but in an election year, when the public is more eager than ever to escape from the grip of special interests working against the public interest, Corallo is unlikely to be the last word.

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