Trial by Paper

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

The air inside the tobacco trial document depository is dry. Stay for an hour and your throat becomes parched. Stay another and your eyes start to burn. The 26 million pieces of paper housed at the warehouse, a stack of which would dwarf the IDS tower, suck moisture from the air like a gigantic sponge. A faint alchemy of dust and ink and stale breath wafts through the place--the smell of a legal landmark in the making. (The case could go to the jury or be settled out-of-court by the end of this week.) Nearly 11,600 brown file boxes are stacked ceiling-high on metal shelves here, stuffed with tobacco-industry memos, meeting minutes, research data, press releases, and ad copy--in all, some of the most controversial documents ever wrangled over in a U.S. courtroom. The State of Minnesota and Blue Cross Blue Shield vs. Philip Morris Inc., et al. has taken the building by paper storm.

Considering the high-profile inventory that's been filling the depository since late 1995 when the trial judge ordered it established, you might expect it to wear a more majestic façade, something with broad marble steps and stately granite pillars. But the documents are stored in the rear of the Hennepin Business Center, one of those squat, smoked-glass-and-brick office parks favored by high-tech entrepreneurs. Tucked into a spaghetti junction off I-35W, across from a Dairy Queen and an E-Z Stop in Northeast Minneapolis, the building sits on an island of concrete and pruned junipers. There's no sign on the door, no indication that the depository--christened the "Depot" by veteran staffers--opened its doors (previously shut to all but a few trial attorneys) to the public under court order by Ramsey County Judge Kenneth Fitzpatrick on April 13.

Even with the order, security around the Depot is tight. A receptionist buzzes visitors in through locked doors, signs them in, and, as if reciting a mantra, asks them to surrender their bags. "You'd be surprised," she says, with a hint of intrigue in her voice. "I've had to wrestle a few reporters for them." The avalanche of legal papers--known around here as the "populations"--is stashed away safely behind a heavy fire door. Only a handful of people have been granted ready access to them. When the attorneys general of Iowa and Michigan visited a couple of weeks ago, they were politely denied access to the Depot's back rooms. "They weren't on my list," says Aldis Jatnicks, a clean-cut computer whiz who, like several of his fellow veterans, looks like he could benefit from some sunlight.

The impressionist print, the stylish floor lamp, and the fresh coat of paint in the makeshift reception area weren't here a month ago. In the old days, before the news cameras and legal VIPs were allowed in, the Depot looked like a temporary bunker--boxes crammed into the now-orderly foyer, pop cans littering the computer tables, clipboards nailed to bare walls. "Everyone figured if it's just going to house paper, why decorate?" Jatnicks says.

In the back rooms, bathed in fluorescent light, two dozen workers cart documents back and forth through the narrow corridors like laboratory mice in a maze. They dart through the doors leading to the populations, locating boxes by their shipment number and color-coded dots, climbing ladders to snatch files off the top shelves, stealing breaks among the towers of legalese and insider memos and ad-blitz blueprints. The carpet is faded and fraying. Raw drywall and smears of sealing mud, where a door was erased or a new partition erected, show signs of a recent reconfiguration of the Depot's circulatory system to make room for another truckload of boxes from Brown & Williamson in Georgia, Philip Morris Inc. in Virginia--any of the eight defendant companies that filed the motion to open these rooms to the public in exchange for financing the entire operation.

"You can't be claustrophobic and work here," says Cindie Smart, owner of Smart Legal Assistants, the firm tapped in October 1995 to serve as keeper of the Depot. As she tells it, in late September 1995 her lawyer friends began buzzing about the trial and the possibility of a central warehouse to store the mass of paperwork sure to be involved in the case. Smart, whose company has helped administer big environmental cases for the past decade, had never before taken on as large and complicated a project as the depository. Then again, there'd never been a trial like this one that she could recall. She sent a bid to the court, and a couple of weeks later Smart Assistants landed the contract. The firm had two weeks to set up headquarters and staff it--including deep security checks on all employees--before the trucks began rolling in. In one stroke, Smart says, she was presented with a huge empty room and told to imagine it filled.

Adam Taylor was a longtime investment banker before trading his suit for jeans and a T-shirt and joining Smart's ranks at the Depot. "I figured it was a good place to relax," he says and laughs. There was a lot more open space around the office back then, Taylor adds a bit wistfully. "There were only 40 boxes or so in the first shipment being put into this massive space. I thought, 'There's no way we're going to fill this place up.'"

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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