Ralph Nader and the American Civil Liberties Union, often on the same side in the past, are fighting each other over the receipt by the ACLU of more than $500,000 from tobacco companies.
Nader, Dr. Sidney Wolfe of the Public Citizen Health Research Group and others active in organizations seeking to protect consumers held a news conference in Washington on Thursday to implore the ACLU to stop accepting the money.The tobacco industry donations were unearthed by Morton Mintz, a retired Washington Post writer, who said that, starting in 1987, the ACLU had accepted large sums of money from tobacco companies, including $500,000 from the Philip Morris Companies Inc.
Mintz said the ACLU's receipt of the money, combined with its support of the tobacco industry's position on cigarette advertising, constituted a conflict of interest for the civil liberties group, made worse because the identity of the donors was not disclosed to its members.
Nader and the ACLU have often been allied in the past, and Thursday he praised it as "one of the great citizen movements of our history." But he said he regretted that the group has been accepting money from "what are euphemistically called the tobacco companies but are in reality drug companies."
He said he felt obliged to speak out against the ACLU because he did not want to follow the example of the labor movement, in which unions have historically agreed not to speak ill of one another. Ultimately, labor unions gave "mutual support to some pretty reprehensible behavior," he said, adding, "This has not been true in the citizens' movement."
The ACLU has taken a so-what-else-is-new approach to criticism from its erstwhile friends.
Philip Gutis, a spokesman for the group's national office, said Thursday that the civil liberties union has never made a secret of having accepted money from tobacco companies, although it has not made a point of notifying its membership.
"This is an old issue," he said. "No one has accused us of a quid pro quo here. "There hasn't been one."
He added that it has been a matter of ACLU policy since at least 1983 to oppose restrictions on commercial advertising, even tobacco advertising.