NOTE: A number of the third parties that Syngenta called on for support will be familiar from the GM debate.
Special Report: Syngenta's campaign to protect atrazine, discredit critics
100Reporters and Environmental Health News, June 17 2013 [extracts only]
To protect profits threatened by a lawsuit over its controversial herbicide atrazine, Syngenta Crop Protection launched an aggressive multi-million dollar campaign that included hiring a detective agency to investigate scientists on a federal advisory panel, looking into the personal life of a judge and commissioning a psychological profile of a leading scientist critical of atrazine. The Switzerland-based pesticide manufacturer also routinely paid “third-party allies” to appear to be independent supporters, and kept a list of 130 people and groups it could recruit as experts without disclosing ties to the company. Recently unsealed court documents reveal a corporate strategy to discredit critics and to strip plaintiffs from the class-action case. The company specifically targeted one of atrazine’s fiercest and most outspoken critics, UC-Berkeley's Tyrone Hayes, whose research suggests that atrazine feminizes male frogs. The campaign is spelled out in hundreds of pages of memos, invoices and other documents from Illinois’ Madison County Circuit Court, that were initially sealed as part of a 2004 lawsuit filed by Holiday Shores Sanitary District. The new documents, along with an earlier tranche, open a window on the company’s strategy to defeat a lawsuit that could have effectively ended sales of atrazine in the United States.
...Discovery documents from the lawsuit were unsealed by the Madison County Circuit Court in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by 100Reporters, a nonprofit investigative journalism group.
The documents show that the company conducted research into the vulnerabilities of a judge, and Hayes’ personal life. Sherry Duvall Ford, Syngenta’s former head of communications, ranked strategies that Syngenta could use against Hayes in order of risk, according to her notes from Syngenta meetings in April 2005. One possibility: offering “to cut him in on unlimited research funds.” Another: Investigate his wife.
In her deposition, Ford read from a memo emailed to her colleagues indicating that Syngenta had hired a detective agency to investigate members of an EPA Scientific Advisory Panel [SAP] examining atrazine...
The company also secretly paid a stable of seemingly independent academics and other “experts” to extol the economic benefits of atrazine and downplay its environmental and health risks, without disclosing their financial ties to the company, according to memos and emails between Syngenta and the public relations firms it hired. At the same time, the company provided strict parameters for what these experts would say.
Don Coursey, Ameritech Professor of Public Policy at the University of Chicago collected $500 an hour from Syngenta to write economic analyses touting the necessity of atrazine, according to an April 25, 2006, email from Coursey to Ford. Syngenta supplied Coursey with the data he was to cite, edited his work and paid him to speak with newspapers, television and radio broadcasters about his reports, without revealing the nature of his arrangement with the corporation, according to Ford’s deposition. Coursey’s work, presented in 2010 at the National Press Club, was widely picked up as independent analysis by newspapers across the country. Coursey also is affiliated with the Heartland Institute, a libertarian nonprofit focused on environmental regulations.
In one document dated 2005, Ford noted areas of vulnerabilities of a Madison County judge the corporation thought might be assigned to the case: “Not showing up for work. Personal conduct. Skybox from Tillery. Dating websites – pic in robes.”
Stephen Tillery, whose firm, Korein Tillery, represented plaintiffs in the suit, said his firm had never given the judge a skybox. “I was never with the judge in a skybox,” Tillery said, adding, “He was not the judge in the case. They thought he might be, and they were looking for ways to disqualify him.”
The allegation over the skybox was the basis of a formal complaint Syngenta filed against Tillery with the Illinois Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission. The complaint was dismissed as without merit.
At least four public relations firms were hired to work on the Syngenta campaign, according to the documents. The White House Writers Group, based in Washington, D.C., and Jayne Thompson & Associates, based in Chicago, were heavily involved. Invoices show that the White House Writers Group received more than $1.6 million in 2010 and 2011. Thompson is Illinois’ former first lady, wife of former Gov. Jim Thompson.
Tillery said, “They did everything they could with dirty tricks. The extent they went to was unprecedented.” He added that only one firm working on behalf of Syngenta, McDermott, Will & Emery of Chicago, did not engage in “dirty tricks.”
Hayes in the Crosshairs
Hayes, a leading atrazine researcher and critic, became a major target. His published research reported that exposure to atrazine chemically castrates male frogs and makes them viable females, able to produce eggs that can be fertilized.
Hayes began his atrazine research in 1997 with a study funded by Novartis Agribusiness, one of two corporations that would later form Syngenta. Hayes said that when he got results Novartis did not expect or want, the corporation refused to allow him to publish them. He secured other funding, replicated his work and released the results: exposure to atrazine creates hermaphroditic frogs. That started an epic feud between the scientist and the corporation.
The new documents show that the company commissioned a psychological profile of Hayes. In her notes taken during a 2005 meeting, Ford refers to Hayes as “paranoid schizo and narcissistic.”
Syngenta tracked Hayes’ speaking engagements and arranged for trained critics to attend each event, sometimes videotaping his remarks, according to a strategy proposed in 2006 memos by Jayne Thompson and later confirmed by Hayes. Syngenta explored the idea of purchasing “Tyrone Hayes” as a search word on the Internet and directing searches to its own marketing materials, but appeared to have ultimately decided against it.
Hayes said he had been unaware that Syngenta had discussed purchasing his name as an Internet search word. “Given some of the things they did, that doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “This clearly shows they went beyond science and academia. It was all PR and tricks.”
Hayes accused Syngenta of pressuring him through UC-Berkeley officials. He said he now pays as much as 20 times more than other researchers for his lab operations. He added that his federal grant applications have been getting the highest scores in evaluations, but are being turned down. He suspects the company of involvement in the sudden hurdles he is facing.
Hayes said Syngenta employees had threatened him verbally and said they were going after his family, but this was the first time he knew these plans were in writing.
“They impacted my professional and personal life,” he said. “It’s sobering to get substantiation of the verbal attacks they made.”
...In one memo, the company denied pressuring Duke University not to hire Hayes, but in her deposition on June 9, 2011, Ford, Syngenta’s former spokeswoman, said that Gary Dickson, a Syngenta employee, contacted a dean at Duke to inform him of the contentious relationship between Hayes and Syngenta.
...Ford also said Syngenta gave financial support to the Hudson Institute and had asked Alex Avery, at the institute’s Center for Global Food Issues, to write reports critical of Hayes. She later said that unlike Hayes, Avery has not published in any peer-reviewed journals that she knew of and he did not disclose payments from Syngenta.
The Hudson Institute is a conservative nonprofit focused on shaping public policy on issues ranging from international relations to technology and health care.
In one document, Ford noted that a principal with the White House Writers Group taped a phone call with Hayes and “set him up.” Hayes was baited through emails from Syngenta’s army of allies. The scientist’s emails were posted on the Syngenta web site as part of the campaign to discredit him.
“If TH [Tyrone Hayes] is involved in scandal, the enviros will drop him,” Ford wrote. “Can prevent citing of TH data by revealing him as non-credible,” she added.
Secret Payments to “Independent” Allies
Court documents include a “Supportive Third Party Stakeholders Database” of 130 people and organizations the company could count on to publicly support atrazine, often for a price.
Documents show people on the list were coached, their statements in support of atrazine were edited by the company and payments to them were not publicly disclosed.
In some cases, Syngenta or its PR team wrote the Op-Ed pieces and then scanned its stakeholder database for a signer.
In an Oct. 17, 2009, memo to Syngenta’s Ford, Jayne Thompson warned that some of the language in four Op-Eds penned by the White House Writers Group is suggestive of their source, which “should be avoided at all costs.”
Court documents include an email dated Oct. 28, 2009, from a Syngenta employee asking her boss how to pay these third-party allies who write in support of atrazine. There are consistent warnings to be sure supporters appear independent, with no links to the corporation.
In one case, Syngenta paid $100,000 to the nonprofit American Council on Science and Health for support that included an Op-Ed piece criticizing the work of journalist Charles Duhigg of the New York Times, who wrote a story on atrazine as part of its Toxic Waters series in 2009. Without disclosing this financial support from Syngenta, president and founder Elizabeth Whelan derided the New York Times article on atrazine as, “All the news that’s fit to scare.” ACSH is a nonprofit that advocates against what it considers government’s over-regulation of issues related to science and health.
“Dear Syngenta friends,” began a 2009 email from Gilbert Ross, a physician at ACSH, thanking Syngenta for its payments and financial support over the years. “Such general operating support is the lifeblood of a small nonprofit like ours, and is both deeply appreciated and much needed,” wrote Ross.
In response to emailed questions for this article, Ross defended the decision not to publicly disclose the payments, and dismissed Hayes as an “outlier.”
...Steven Milloy, publisher of junkscience.com and president of Citizens for the Integrity of Science, is also in Syngenta’s Supportive Third Party Stakeholders Database.
In a Dec. 3, 2004, email to Syngenta, Milloy requests a grant of $15,000 for the nonprofit Free Enterprise Education Institute for an atrazine stewardship cost-benefit analysis project.
In a letter dated Aug. 6, 2008, Milloy requests a $25,000 grant for the nonprofit Free Enterprise Project of the National Center for Public Policy Research. In an email on that date, he writes, “send the check to me as usual and I’ll take care of it.”
While Op-Eds aim to shape public opinion, economic and cost-benefit analyses were also important, because EPA rulings on pesticide use are based on health, environmental and economic effects.
In an email to Syngenta’s head of communications, Thompson praises an essay that ran in the Belleville News Democrat, an Illinois newspaper based about 20 miles from Edwardsville, the community that initiated the lawsuit.
The 2006 essay was signed by Jay Lehr of the Heartland Institute. The essay claimed the Holiday Shores lawsuit could, if successful, shrink the nation’s food supply.
“These are great clips for us because they get out some of our messages from someone (Lehr) who comes off sounding like an unbiased expert. Another strength is that the messages do not sound like they came from Syngenta,” Thompson wrote.
The Heartland Institute fought a subpoena all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court in 2012 that would have forced it to disclose any financial relationship with Syngenta and the source of its articles supporting atrazine. The Heartland Institute argued disclosure would violate its First Amendment rights. The case settled before a ruling was issued, so the relationship remains undisclosed.
In response to an emailed question, the Heartland Institute did not deny receiving funding from Syngenta. Any money it receives, the institute maintained, is considered a donation to a nonprofit, and Heartland was not obligated to disclose donor information. Its president, Joseph Bast, has said he would go to jail for contempt of court “rather than share a single note he had ever made during a meeting with a donor.”
In addition to working with third-party allies, another Syngenta effort to fight the lawsuit was to go directly to plaintiffs, both actual and potential. [in order to pressure them to drop out of the case]