Madison County’s scientifically meritless, nearly 8-year-old atrazine lawsuit last made headlines in spring 2011 when the presiding judge backed the plaintiffs’ request to unseal arguably irrelevant internal documents of Syngenta, maker of the widely used weed killer. Those documents included a then 6-year-old memo from a Chicago public relations firm that noted, among other uncontroversial things, the county’s plaintiff-friendly history.
Now, ironically enough, significant evidence suggests the plaintiffs’ attorneys may have hypocritically engaged in their own public relations efforts by feeding previously sealed discovery documents to a WikiLeaks-wannabe website funded in part by advocates for the organic food industry.
Screen-captures prove that SourceWatch.org began posting the Syngenta documents on Jan. 9. But court records as of Jan. 31 make clear that no one from the public, including the website’s reporters, had viewed or copied the documents now available on request at the courthouse.
Only a tiny universe of people had access to these documents beforehand, including opposing legal teams, the judge and court staff. And surely defense attorneys had no motivation to turn over once-confidential documents to a website bent on smearing their client with breathless innuendo and conspiracy theories. So if the plaintiffs’ law firm isn’t coordinating its public relations tactics with SourceWatch and the website’s sponsor, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), and didn’t funnel the documents directly to the website, we’d certainly like to know who did.
Still more troubling is a question about reported efforts to breach the Internet firewalls of three Syngenta consultants once the American Tort Reform Association had begun on Jan. 27 to publicize the document postings and possible connections between the plaintiffs’ lawyers, the CMD, SourceWatch and organics industry advocates. Who was so curious about the e-mail traffic between Syngenta’s allies that they would resort to such hacking?
While that question is investigated, we know of and can document CMD’s significant leadership and fund-raising connections with organic food-promoters. And one needn’t be a Hollywood scriptwriter to imagine the struggling organics industry’s motivation to raise the costs of more competitive conventional farming by any means necessary — including meritless, time-consuming lawsuits.
That all plaintiffs and defendants in major litigation always consider and play public relations angles is not news. But judges are supposed to consider only the relevant law and facts in the cases before them. If Madison County judges had done that, the atrazine litigation would have ended long ago, especially since thousands of scientific studies, including those reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency, National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization, conclude that atrazine poses “no harm” to drinking water or public health at the concentrations found in Illinois and elsewhere across the country.
We can understand why plaintiffs’ lawyers and allied advocates for the organic food industry would seek to demonize what they see as a deep-pocket defendant and a competitor. But why would Madison County judges ignore overwhelming science and favor the plaintiffs when so many of the county’s tax-paying residents earn their livelihoods in conventional agriculture?