My morning with the FBI

Published 10:13 am Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Twenty-five years had drifted by since R. J. Reynolds Tobacco hired me to cut it loose from tobacco. Then the damn phone rings.

“This is the FBI. Wanna talk to you about the cigarette business.” The guy sounded phony, like he watched too much cheap TV.

“Yeah, sure. You flimflammers all say you’re the FBI. You’re probably some shyster suing a tobacco company.” But even if it is the FBI, I don’t need them poking around.

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“That’s a federal offense, impersonating a government official. Get their names next time,” he says, “and we’ll see them in court.”

“I’m trying to say out of courtrooms this year.” I make my voice raspy to sound like a tough guy.

“I need to see you. We can do it easy, or I can subpoena you,” he explains.

“No. I’m getting too many subpoenas. The neighbors talk. They recognize the bailiff’s car.” He doesn’t find that amusing.

He says he’s from the FBI’s DC office. Why not their Chicago office? I’m getting jumpy. I’ve got a neighbor who’s in the mob. Maybe he knows a way out of this. I’ve never met my Mafiosi neighbor, but I’ve been to his wife’s garage sales.

One week later the agent lands on my doorstep. He’s a cold fish in a black suit. He flashes his ID. I take him into the morning room where the south wall is nothing but windows. I sit him so he gets the sun in his eyes. I saw this in a movie.

He swears me in. No Bible needed. He says a federal perjury charge could get me time.

“Back when you were at the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, how involved were you in marketing to teenagers?” he asks. His tone is menacing.

The fog is lifting. So this is what it’s all about. The Beltway wants proof that cigarette companies induced kids to smoke. That’s an old Georgetown tale. I can relax. They haven’t got anything on me.

“I wasn’t. None of us were,” I blurt. “Look, we had always agreed not to market to minors. And it was a firing offence if you were ever crazy enough to try it.” I make it sound like I give a damn about an industry I walked away from 25 years ago.

“Can I use your bathroom?” he asks. That sounds like he’s finished. I loosen up.

“There’s one down the hall, on the right,” I offer.

He puts all his papers back in his attaché case, and takes it with him to the bathroom. I was going to rifle through his papers, but he was too smart for that. J. Edgar Hoover trained them that way.

“Upset stomach,” he says upon returning to the morning room. He sits back down. He pulls out more papers. Damn, he’s not finished. There’s more to come. The sun has gone above the house, so he can now spot how nervous I am.

“Do you want some Pepto-Bismol?” I ask, trying to break the tension. That was a mistake. I quickly realize it sounded like Stockholm syndrome.

“No, it’s okay.”

“How about an after-dinner mint?” I’m just making it worse. Stupidity is destiny, my father forgot to tell me.

“No thanks, I’ll be okay. A glass of water would be nice, ” he says, grimacing with pain.

I’m guessing it’s the hooch he was sampling last night on Rush Street. I live here and don’t know the dives from the cabarets. The out-of-towners always know. I pour a glass of tap water and drop in one ice cube. More then one would be recorded as a sign of guilt. They’re trained not to miss anything.

“You say you didn’t focus on the youth market?” He sounds like a DA in a B-movie. He’s back on the youth thing. I try redirection:

“Right. We had this Cigarette Advertising Council headed up by Robert Meyner, former governor of New Jersey.” Throwing in the governor’s name will make him think I’m well connected. “One time,” I continue,” he yanked a Salem commercial because it showed a couple sitting under a tree, and he thought it would remind youngsters of the song, ‘Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree with Anyone Else but Me.’”

That usually gets a laugh. The G-man doesn’t get the humor. “Then what about this?” he says with a raised voice, thrusting a Xerox of an old memo at me. “You wrote this, and in it you say ‘Here’s that information about teenagers I told you about.’ How do you explain that? “

It’s the old FBI “sandbag trick.” He’s got me! I’ve perjured myself. That’s five years. My head is swimming. Bad thoughts course through my brain: The federal pokey is in the Loop, Anna could easily visit, but would she?

“This is very incriminating, and you’re under oath. Do you want to change your testimony?” He looks awfully stern.

Wait a minute! What is this damn memo? I grab it out of his hands and stare at it. Yeah, that’s my signature. I feel sick.

Then suddenly it hits me. Thank you, Jesus! “Oh, I know what this is,” I tell him. He leans over to listen. “We bought a syndicated audience research service to find out how many kids viewed our TV shows. If they did, we dropped the show.”

“Yeah, but still this memo, by your own words, says you were involved in youth marketing?” he insists.

“Wrong! I was just sending the report to our media buyer so he could pick shows that kids didn’t watch.”

My watch says it’s high noon. And I’m still standing.

He stuffs his papers in his attaché case. “Fine. You won’t be hearing from us anymore.” He sounds defeated.

And so off he went, his work for the American people finished, on his way to O’Hare to catch an afternoon flight back to the nation’s capital.


Terry Haller is an Oxford resident and can be reached at