The Canadian government filed criminal charges Friday against affiliates of tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds, accusing them of helping to flood that country with cheap contraband cigarettes during the 1990s.
Also charged with fraud and conspiracy were eight current or former senior executives who allegedly took part in a scheme that authorities said robbed the federal government and the provinces of Ontario and Quebec of more than $800 million in cigarette taxes.
Several observers called it the biggest corporate fraud case ever filed in Canada.
The charges stemmed from a 4 1/2-year investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police of the smuggling boom that prompted Canada to rescind a steep cigarette tax meant to curb smoking. Investigators said the probe was continuing and could result in charges against more tobacco companies or executives.
Among the companies charged were R.J. Reynolds Tobacco International Inc. and JTI-Macdonald Corp., a leading Canadian cigarette maker formerly known as RJR-Macdonald.
The companies and two others named in the complaint were subsidiaries of RJR Nabisco Corp. in the early to mid-1990s, when the alleged offenses took place. RJR Nabisco since has passed out of existence through corporate restructuring, and RJR Tobacco International and RJR-Macdonald were acquired by Japan Tobacco International Inc. in 1999.
"Large multinational corporations will be held accountable for their criminal activity," said Robert Davis, the RCMP inspector in charge of the case. "Senior executives of those companies will not be allowed to hide behind a 'corporate veil' to protect themselves from criminal prosecution."
R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings spokesman Seth Moskowitz said the allegations were limited to international businesses that have been divested and that the U.S. domestic cigarette maker was not charged.
Japan Tobacco International, based in Geneva, came out swinging. The charges are "politically motivated" and "based on false evidence offered by convicted felons, encouraged by government-sponsored anti-tobacco activists," JTI said in a statement. "We are confident that a full and fair airing of the true evidence will prove these allegations false."
Les Thompson, a former RJR-Macdonald sales manager and liaison with U.S.-based black marketeers, welcomed the charges.
Thompson served a U.S. prison term after pleading guilty to smuggling-related charges. Thompson, the subject of a November profile in The Times, described himself as a loyal soldier who carried out orders in helping the firm reap millions of dollars in illicit profit. An RJR subsidiary, Northern Brands Inc., also pleaded guilty to U.S. charges and paid a $15-million fine. But top executives blamed the scandal on Thompson, portraying him as a rogue employee who dragged them through the mud.
Thompson was extensively debriefed by the RCMP, and several of his former superiors were among those charged.
"It's sort of like a 110-pound bag of cement has been ... removed from my back," Thompson said in a telephone interview. "I'm really not trying to be vindictive," but "it's a pretty good feeling."
Cigarette smuggling became rampant in Canada after a series of tax increases nearly doubled the price of a pack of smokes. Tobacco companies began exporting huge volumes of tax-free cigarettes to distributors on the U.S. side of the border, where there was virtually no market for Canadian brands. The cigarettes then were sneaked back into Canada, often through the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation in upstate New York.
Canadian officials have said that all the country's major cigarette makers fed the contraband market but that RJR-Macdonald perhaps was the most blatant.
In 1999, Canada filed a civil racketeering case against RJR in the United States. But the claim was thrown out under the revenue rule, which bars foreign governments from using U.S. courts to collect taxes.
Garfield Mahood, head of Canada's Non-Smokers' Rights Assn., a leading anti-smoking group, called the black-market trade in tobacco "the largest corporate fraud and conspiracy in the history of Canadian business." Davis of the RCMP said this would not "be an overstatement ... if you measure by the volume of dollars defrauded."
The executives named Friday have not been arrested but are to appear in court March 26 in Toronto. All have been charged with at least one count of fraud and one count of conspiracy, each of which carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.
Davis said Canadian law does not specify how much convicted companies or individuals might pay in fines and restitution, leaving that up to the judge.
Among the executives charged Friday was Edward Lang of Naples, Fla., former chief executive of RJR-Macdonald and a vice president with RJR International. Lang's lawyer, Scott Fenton, described the case as an "abjectly political prosecution of an innocent person. We will fight hard to clear his good name."
Also charged was Stanley Smith of British Columbia, former vice president of sales for RJR-Macdonald. Smith's lawyer, Brian Heller, declined to comment.
Canadian officials said the other defendants are Dale Sisel of Gillette, Wyo., former president and CEO of RJR Tobacco International; Jaap Uittenbogaard of Jupiter, Fla., former vice president and chief financial officer of RJR International; Pierre Brunelle of Geneva, a former board member of RJR Macdonald; Paul Neumann of Geneva, an executive with Japan Tobacco International; Roland Konstantos of Geneva, an executive of JTI; and Peter MacGregor of Atlanta, former finance manager for Northern Brands International.