The Marlboro Hombres
It was the blackberries, not the cigarettes, that most impressed state senator Ray Powers when he visited sunny Costa Rica for six days this summer as a guest of tobacco giant Philip Morris.
A highlight for Powers, who made the trek along with eleven other state legislators from around the country, was the tour of a blackberry ranch owned by the brother of Costa Rican president Jose Figueres Olsen. The blackberry operation was "good to learn about from a trade standpoint," says Powers. He and the other American politicians also took a jungle boat cruise, visited a coffee plantation and bunked down at the brand-new Melia Playa Conchal resort, complete with a casino, a pool bar and, according to its promotional materials, "spectacular views of the Pacific, Gulf of Papagayo and the surrounding mountains and volcanos." And after each of the planned events, the fact-finding legislators sat down to a meal arranged by Philip Morris.
Unlike some of the others who attended the conference, Powers did not avail himself of the Marlboro cigarettes thoughtfully placed in crystal goblets on the tables. "I'm not a smoker, but I'm also not going to say anything bad about them," Powers, a Republican from Colorado Springs, says of the tobacco lobbyists who sponsored the trip. "I have a very soft spot in my heart for Philip Morris."
Powers wasn't the only Colorado politician who sampled the cigarette industry's south-of-the-border hospitality. Also in the tour group was state Senate majority leader Jeff Wells, another Republican from Colorado Springs and the man who wants to be Colorado's next attorney general--a position from which he presumably would direct the state's pending lawsuit against the tobacco industry. Earlier this summer Colorado joined more than thirty other states seeking compensation for the costs of treating smoking-related diseases.
Powers and Wells both say they didn't realize that Philip Morris was the main financial sponsor of their trip until after they returned home. Yet neither senator seems at all troubled by the company's behind-the-scenes role--in fact, they say they believe their jaunt to the Central American paradise in June will benefit Colorado.
The trip's chief sponsor was the New York Society for International Affairs. While that group has a Manhattan telephone number and address, it is actually a dummy operation funded by Philip Morris. Calls to the society are answered by a machine. A person who gave her name only as Lori returned a call from Westword, but said she didn't know anything about the Costa Rican trip or anything else about the society, save for the name of the president, Andrew Whist, who is a vice president at Philip Morris. Whist did not return calls seeking comment, but he recently told the Wall Street Journal that the New York Society's office is "a chair in my apartment."
The other sponsor of the trip, the Council of State Governments, is a not-for-profit organization that charges Colorado $83,000 a year in membership dues. The CSG also has a long list of corporate sponsors, including Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, the makers of Camel cigarettes.
Powers says he took the trip because he was invited along by the CSG, for which he serves as "co-chairman of the international committee." He says he paid $200 of his own air fare and picked up the cost of his wife Dorothy's plane ticket, but organizers covered all the other costs. Both he and Wells say they never got a bill, so they don't know the full financial value of the excursion.
According to Powers, a dairy farmer, his "soft spot" for Philip Morris goes way back. "I didn't have a high school diploma and Mr. Kraft himself sent me the money to get into agriculture," he says. (Kraft Foods Inc. later became part of Philip Morris.)
Powers's soft spot may also have something to do with the $2,900 of tobacco money he got before his last election, when he faced a difficult primary challenge from anti-tax crusader Douglas Bruce. Powers received more tobacco money than any other candidate in Colorado during the last election cycle, according to a study published by the Institute for Health Policy Studies at the University of California at San Francisco.
That study also shows that while Powers is at the top in getting money from tobacco companies, he ranks near the bottom when it comes to voting for laws that restrict tobacco products. On the study's scale of 10, he got a score of 2.2, the second lowest score in the Colorado legislature.
Wells rated a 3.5 on the scale. And though he hasn't faced serious opposition since the 1986 primary, he still gets donations from the cigarette lobby. In fact, he had only one donation in 1995: $800 from Philip Morris. In 1996 he got another check from the company for $1,000, his largest single contribution and received another check for $800 from Miller Brewing, which is a subsidiary of Philip Morris. Those
contributions do not include the tickets he was given by Philip Morris to sit in a sky box at Denver Broncos games or the opening night theater tickets to Les Miserables.
Wells says he doesn't consider his trip to Costa Rica a political contribution and notes that as the national chairman of the CSG he has taken several out-of-town trips, some to such unexotic destinations as Overland Park, Kansas. Costa Rica, he says, was just another one of those trips. "Frankly it wasn't even my favorite place," adds Wells. He says he enjoyed speaking to an association of state treasurers in San Diego more than the six days in Costa Rica.
The Costa Rican expedition was Wells's second trip sponsored by the New York Society; the first was a trip to Belgium to speak to officials of the European Union about federalism, a subject in which he says he's become an expert.
Powers and Wells were joined in Costa Rica by Charlie Williams, a state legislator running for governor in Mississippi against that state's anti-tobacco attorney general, Mike Moore. Williams is a veteran tobacco-funded traveler who's already taken trips to Australia, Belgium and Spain--all paid for by the New York Society. "Charlie is a good guy," Powers says.
Another of the junketeers was state senator Manny Aragon of New Mexico. According to the Albuquerque Tribune, Aragon was a key force in blocking funds that that state's attorney general, Tom Udall, had requested to file suit against tobacco companies. Now Udall is investigating whether or not the New York Society may have violated the state's rules governing political gifts.
The New York Society has served as a travel agent to American politicians since 1991, although the source of its funding came to light only this summer in a series of stories in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The paper reported that Wisconsin's governor, Tommy Thompson, had taken trips to Africa and Australia paid for by Philip Morris. Thompson told the paper he "might not have gone" had he known about the source of the funding.
Powers, though, says he was "proud" to go to Costa Rica and adds that he learned a lot there. "We were pretty well learning about the government of Costa Rica," he says. "I believe in this philosophically."
Wells says that he had to take the trip because of his position in the Council of State Governments and that his experience with that group will be good for Colorado in the long run. "The benefit to Colorado," Wells says, "is to have someone like me in the position of national chairman."
Visit www.westword.com to read related Westword stories.
Get the Weekly Newsletter