Tobacco Whistle-Blower Finds Haven in High School
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) _ When he went from tobacco industry insider to its most prominent whistle-blower, Jeffrey Wigand says he faced lawsuits, death threats and smear campaigns.
But every morning, Wigand leaves it all behind to teach chemistry at Louisville’s duPont Manual High School.
``I try to deal with school as school. They deserve my 100 percent,″ he told The Associated Press on Tuesday during his first interview for newspapers.
``The most stable environment for me is coming here at 6 o’clock in the morning and leaving at 4 o’clock in the afternoon,″ he said.
Wigand says his classroom has become his home _ and his crutch _ since he went public with allegations that his former employer, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., misled the public and Congress about the dangers of tobacco.
The former $300,000-a-year research director contends that former B&W Chairman Thomas Sandefur lied when he told Congress under oath that he did not believe nicotine was addictive, a charge Sandefur has denied. Wigand’s claims have prompted grand jury investigations of tobacco companies.
B&W, meanwhile, has accused Wigand of lying, shoplifting and wife abuse _ charges Wigand’s lawyer has denied. Now, a federal grand jury is reportedly investigating whether attempts by Brown & Williamson to discredit Wigand amount to intimidating a federal witness.
Wigand would not comment on B&W’s efforts to discredit him, citing pending court cases.
But the 53-year-old biochemist acknowledged that his life in some respects has ``fallen into disarray.″ He’s received death threats, his wife has filed for divorce and he’s no longer living at his home.
Still, he knows many of his students have followed the case in the media _ most recently a once-suppressed ``60 Minutes″ TV interview _ and he hopes they learn from his ordeal.
``What I really want them to learn, is that sometimes it’s worth taking a risk,″ he said.
Sara Hume, 15, a freshman in Wigand’s chemistry class, said a lot of students admire him. ``He’s going up against some powerful people. That takes a lot of courage and guts,″ she said.
Wigand, who was fired by B&W in 1993, said he chose teaching ``because I wanted to make a difference.″ Now, he makes about a tenth of his old salary teaching chemistry and one class period of Japanese.
Fellow science teacher Barbara Fendley said Wigand’s experience is teaching students a valuable lesson in ethics.
``You think how many of those guys sit in their offices knowing what he knows, making the big bucks and don’t do anything about it,″ she said.