Trial by Paper

Millions of tobacco-industry documents find a home in the crammed back rooms of the Depot

But fill it they did. Delivery trucks bulging with boxes pulled up at the loading dock from dawn until dark, with workers frantically figuring out how to organize things inside. They added extra rooms, hired more help, and ironed out an indexing system to keep the whole place from going haywire.

In the fall and winter of 1996, Jatnicks says, representatives from the Minnesota attorney general's office and the tobacco companies began crowding the viewing rooms for 14 hours at a stretch. Some days, he recalls, they would even beat Smart workers to the front door in the morning and beg them to stay late at night. Jatnicks remembers almost missing a New Year's Eve party that year--on the last day of discovery--when he and several others had to stay late to receive a shipment before the midnight deadline.

Smart says that back then, when the Depot was still off-limits to the public, it held a kind of mystique--a sanctum sanctorum aura made all the more intriguing by the secretive nature of its all-hours shipments and the gag order placed on workers. Its seasoned staff labored under a vow of silence as strict as any taken by a monk. "When I first started, it was kind of scary," says Jessica Kohner, who was hired on last year. "It was, 'Thou shalt not divulge!'" Another staffer says his grandmother calls regularly to ask if he's met Skip Humphrey yet. No, he tells her, but he did stand behind Minnesota's leading attorney during a photo op when the Depot opened its doors. Beyond that, everyone here has pacts with families and friends not to discuss the case or the confidential documents in the back rooms. If Smart workers are laying bets on the verdict, they're not divulging that information either.

Lately the Depot has taken on a routine--if not downright tedious--existence. Document requests come in from the trial every morning. A few students, reporters, and attorneys swing by on daily data trawls at the sophisticated computers, surfing for smoking guns. Staffers spend hours going through even the "well-behaved" boxes after they've been studied, checking for missing and defaced pages. But there's time now for Smart to bring her 9-year-old daughter in to see what all the fuss has been about. There's time for the general manager to take a honeymoon, his first vacation in a couple of years.

Still, questions linger about the ultimate fate of the depository and that of its twin, the British American Tobacco Company Document Depository in London (known as the BAT cave). If the attorney general has his way, says Leslie Sandberg, a spokesperson for his office, the Depot will stay open indefinitely as a research center--something between an archive and a museum--on the tobacco companies' dime. (Philip Morris alone, says a company attorney, has already shelled out between $350 and $450 million on discovery papers and depository costs.) For now staffers are content to follow the trial by radio, tuning in for updates from the courthouse on a battered portable balanced in the corner of a back room on a box.

Outside, in the red-golden light of the fading afternoon, a lone smoker leans on the back loading dock and takes long, solitary drags off his cigarette. He exhales, and the wind carries up the smoke and erases it into the air. The tobacco trial of the century--and its imminent verdict--seems far off, across the river and a world away.

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