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Mormon Mitt in Bed with Big Tobacco

Former Governor Mitt Romney speaking at the 2012 CPAC in Washington, DC. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

Mitt Romney’s religious hypocrisy and lack of moral scruples are most tellingly exemplified by his personal involvement in Bain Capital’s work for big tobacco – which included hooking millions of Russians on the drug that is anathema to Mormons.

America likes tough guys. In the minds of America’s so-called “low-information voters” – and the low-information-delivering media – Mitt Romney won the first presidential debate because he was the alpha male aggressor, the person who used the most dramatic hand gestures, emitted the highest number of words per minute and simply acted like he was in charge. Romney even bullied the hapless moderator, Jim Lehrer, perhaps channeling his high school days when he humiliated a handicapped teacher and bullied and assaulted gay students. Romney got away with it in high school, and he’s getting away with it again – though the second debate held a different fate for him.

Evidently, the actual content of what Romney said was irrelevant. It’s like debate watchers were voting as they would have for American Idol. The lyrics of the song didn’t matter; it was only the performance that counted. Brazen departures from reality, the truth, facts and common sense combined with constant self-contradictions and breathtaking flip-flopping are no longer a liability, but in fact, have become the very qualities that apparently make many people believe he is suddenly “presidential.”

If polls are to be believed, in less than 90 minutes, the press and the public forgave Romney his notorious 47 percent comments, his personification of Wall Street greed, foreign bank accounts, tax dodging, plutocratic tax plan, outsourcing American jobs to Chinese sweat shops, eagerness to suppress women’s reproductive rights, brutal anti-immigration policies, comical contortions differentiating Obamacare from Romneycare, foreign policy blunders, outrageous military budget, incomprehensible federal deficit arithmetic, and his mocking of global warming. No longer did any of that matter. He looks good in a suit, and his “performance” was captivating, so the lyrics of the song were irrelevant.

I and many others have written about Romney’s long history of shameless dishonesty. But new information has emerged about Romney and Bain’s intimate involvement in, and profiteering from, Big Tobacco, which is shocking even to me and which should remove all doubt about how empty a suit is Mitt Romney.

To understand the latest and worst chapter in Romney hypocrisy, one must first appreciate how abhorrent smoking is to Mormons. As a person who grew up immersed in the Mormon culture, served a Mormon mission just like Romney did and held a significant supervisory position during my Mormon mission, I know well what Mormons think of smoking. While Mormons put a premium on “clean living” and exemplary “moral” behavior, in the eyes of Mormons, nothing distinguishes them more from non-Mormons than their unique prohibition on smoking. It is considered not just a health proscription, but also a moral imperative. Smoking would disqualify one from entering into one of the Mormon sacred temples, for example.

A Mormon could be greedy, materialistic, evade his taxes, engage in unethical or inhumane business practices (like Romney does), stop going to church, become addicted to prescription drugs or even cheat on a spouse, and all of this could be either overlooked or forgiven. But nothing more thoroughly symbolizes a person’s departure from the standards of the Mormon Church than cigarette smoking.

The second thing one must appreciate is how much of a spiritual icon Romney is in Mormon World. Few Mormons identify with Harry Reid, though he is just as Mormon as Mitt. And not just because Reid is a relatively rare Democrat among the Mormon faithful, but because Romney is well known to have served as both a Mormon bishop and a stake president from 1981 to 1994. The latter position is comparable to a Catholic bishop. Among his many religious duties, he would have spent hundreds of hours privately interviewing other Mormons about their worthiness to perform sacred Mormon rituals. And none of them would he have deemed worthy if they had smoked.

So, at the same time Mitt served as a Mormon stake president and the spiritual leader of the Boston Mormon flock of over 4,000 parishioners, he was making himself filthy rich promoting smoking and helping to ruin the health of millions of people, according to a 9,000 word October 9 article on Huffington Post by Zach Carter and Jason Cherkis drawing from the University of California at San Francisco’s essential library of Legacy Tobacco Documents.

In the early 1990s, Bain & Co. the original parent company of Romney’s Bain Capital, was floundering, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. As revealed by Tim Dickinson writing for Rolling Stone, its leaders then asked Mitt to come back and essentially rescue the company.

Romney’s initial rescue attempt was a disaster – leaving Bain & Company so financially strapped that it had “no value as a going concern.” Then he engineered a federal bailout of the firm that cost the FDIC and, ultimately, the American taxpayers $16 million and forced Bain’s creditors to accept 30 cents on the dollar. In the end, Romney had the audacity to reward his old buddies at Bain with hefty bonuses while he simultaneously demanded a company bailout from the federal government. Finally, Romney charged Bain & Co. a mere $4 million to arrange for these management consulting pigs to feed at the public trough. If 47 percent of the country are living large at government expense, you can certainly count Romney and his Bain buddies among them. But the hypocrisy of Romney’s rescue of his old firm goes much, much deeper.

With Bain still desperate for new business, Philip Morris quickly became one of Bain’s most important clients. In the United States, Bain helped develop a strategy to lure smokers into switching to Philip Morris brands and increasing their overall sales. Within a few years, Bain helped the cigarette maker fend off rising public sentiment against tobacco and increased pressure from federal regulators, as well as defend smokers’ rights.

But an even larger source of Bain’s profits came through its unique role in helping Big Tobacco get millions of Russians hooked on cigarettes. In fact, Big Tobacco became Bain’s financial savior when it was still struggling to avoid insolvency.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western technocrats helped facilitate the transfer of Russia’s wealth into the hands of a few oligarchs. The US government also got involved. In March 1993, Bain & Co. received a $3.9 million federal contract to advise Boris Yeltsin’s administration on the privatization of the Russian economy, like their tobacco industry. In that role, Bain served as the facilitator for British American Tobacco (BAT) to enter the Russian market, exploiting strategies to avoid Russian taxes, laundering money and bribing customs officials.

With Romney’s leadership, Bain helped international tobacco corporations buy up Russian cigarette factories. Bain became heavily involved in escorting BAT to the newly emerging market in post Soviet Russia, and helping to significantly expand the smoking habit in the Russian population. Romney knew of and approved the “let’s get Russia smoking” strategy and was the immediate boss of Bain’s Russian collaborators. That strategy was successful in increasing the rate of smoking among Russians by 300 percent in only a few years. The smoking rate among young Russians is now among the highest in the world – a public health catastrophe.

Bain management allowed some of its employees to opt out of the project if they had moral objections to it. But Mitt hardly opted out; he was the ringmaster. Many people, if not most, would have a moral objection to making a living as, essentially, a drug dealer for “killer” tobacco, which was known at the time to be more addictive than heroin. But for a widely revered and high-level Mormon official who was already fabulously wealthy to condone and profit from tobacco investments and addicting millions of people to a destructive and deadly habit prohibited by his own beloved church is the Mount Everest of hypocrisy. And the frosting on the cake is, no doubt Mitt paid his 10 percent church tithing on the filthy lucre he received from Big Tobacco.

Even my active-Mormon, Mitt-worshipping friends, family and neighbors will have a hard time with this one. In fact, every Mormon should be disgusted, and every voter should realize what an empty suit this performer who would be president truly is.

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