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From Tobacco to Toxic Waste

George Mitchell’s Drugs of Choice

by DAVE ZIRIN

The Mitchell Report on steroids is shaking the baseball world from cap to cleats. It names 86 players, and calls for a vast reformation of what is being called "the steroid era" in Major League Baseball. The 20-month, $20 million investigation has been accepted as gospel by the hoi polloi. Yet having slogged through the 400-page dirge, it’s difficult to not agree with ESPN’s Jayson Stark that the report contains "way too many instances of name- dropping … with a blank check here or an address-book listing there, but no true corroboration anywhere." And yet this hearsay is being accepted as fact because of the reputation of the man behind the report: former Sen. George Mitchell.

As a fawning press corps mentions at every turn, this is an individual beyond reproach: the former Senate majority leader, former federal judge and "the man who brokered the Northern Ireland peace deal." Mitchell played to the hilt the role of "wise man" upon announcing his findings last Thursday, speaking with the gravity of an Anglican minister.

But before we collectively sanctify his findings as holy writ, perhaps we should also consider the man behind it. When not "saving baseball," Mitchell works as a D.C. lobbyist carrying water for Big Tobacco and other corporations that traffic in human misery. By shedding even a modest light on the company he keeps, a serious shadow is cast on not merely the messenger but the deeply flawed message.

Mitchell’s sins are as lengthy as they are hidden. First, there is the senator’s drug of choice: tobacco, a substance that has tagged more toes than any steroid. In 1997, Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times that his law firm Verner, Lipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand "earned more than $10 million in fees in 1997 from the five largest tobacco companies." The work has continued, with big tobacco paying top dollar to make sure they can survive the class-action lawsuit settlements that threaten to bankrupt their industry.

As John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University and executive director of the anti-tobacco group Action on Smoking and Health said to the Boston Globe, "Basically, the tobacco industry hired everybody who had any kind of entree or clout in Washington…. I can’t think of any reason George Mitchell would agree to [represent big tobacco], except one obvious one: Someone’s offering him a ton of money … That is the surprising thing: So much of the rest of Mitchell’s record is very good, upstanding, praiseworthy, above partisanship, but here it looks like he sold out like everybody else."

Mitchell also has a taste for toxic waste. General Electric hired Mitchell to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from forcing them to clean the spew they’ve emptied into the Hudson River. Over the course of decades, GE dumped polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCBs into the Hudson with devastating results for the wildlife, environment and people of New York state. The Clinton and Bush administrations both endorsed an EPA plan to make GE pay $450 million in clean-up costs. GE’s response has been to spend millions on gold-plated lobbyists like Mitchell to hold them off.

But Mitchell does more than service tobacco and toxic waste barons. He has also worked for the chocolate industry. It sounds innocent enough. But Mitchell was hired to stop Congress from labeling candy that may have been picked by child or slave labor. The reports of abuse, confirmed by the Ivory Coast government, were so harrowing that Congress appeared ready to act. The Chocolate Manufacturers of America saw a PR nightmare and called Mitchell. As Susan Smith of the CMA said, "What better person to give us advice on how to bring different parties together and deal with cross-country issues and global issues?"

John Aloysius Farrell, in an analysis of Mitchell’s chocolate child slave-labor advocacy, wrote in the Globe, "What the manufacturers paid for was the chance to wrap themselves and their deal in the aura of Mitchell’s reputation…. Like the new owners of the Boston Red Sox (accused of being rapacious out-of-towners), or the embattled directors of the American Red Cross (said to have diverted funds for Sept. 11 victims to pad its bureaucracy), or the scandal-dogged members of the International Olympic Committee (found to be accepting favors from solicitous host cities), or Bill Clinton’s legal defense team (well, you know), the chocolate industry paid a share of public penance by signing up Mitchell and leasing his rectitude."

We can now add to that list "Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig." Mitchell has produced a report that names 86 players, but does not call one owner or member of upper management to task. In a report that excoriates a "steroid era" in the sport, there is no recommendation for Selig to resign. This shouldn’t surprise because Mitchell is part of ownership, sitting on the board of the Boston Red Sox. The report seems more aimed to head off congressional action than deal with how and why steroids make their way into Major League muscles. The problem with the Mitchell Report–the reason why it is so deeply flawed–is the man himself. In the end, the flaws of the messenger have terribly disfigured to the message.

DAVE ZIRIN is a columnist for sports illustrated.com and the author of "Welcome to the Terrordome," (Haymarket).