Witness Roundup 2: HBI: Simmons, Robertson

October 25, 2004 2:50 am by Gene Borio

The HBI (Healthy Buildings International) segments have not gone well for the DOJ, in my opinion.


Judge Kessler, while no Angela Lansbury, doesn’t exactly have a poker face. Midway through Reginald Simmons’ testimony, I thought I could tell that she’d basically had it with this witness.

Whether he was drinking and sleeping on that job in Florida in ‘88; whether in a meeting with Gray Robertson in December he quit or was allowed to stay on; whether he made a midnight call to Robertson the following April and told him where he could shove his job; and most of all, whether he had had an uncannily –even impossibly–identical chance meeting with a TI employee and his co-worker John Maderis 14 months after someone else had had the exact same kind of meeting with a TI employee and John Maderis–well, at a certain point, none of it really mattered to Judge Kessler, it seemed to me.

It would take a huge amount of time to sort it all out, and Simmons’ equivocal answers didn’t lead you to suspect you’d find anything worthwhile at the end of the long trail. So whatever came out of the mouth of this big, beefy, 45-ish, blonde guy with the downturned mustache–he could have been a NYC fireman– it really didn’t seem to make much difference. Maybe I’m projecting, but I believe you could see on Judge Kessler’s face the idea that we were just going through the motions here till we could get to the end of the testimony; she seemed to be simply enduring, waiting for the ordeal to be over.

Nor, in fact, did any of this seem to matter to Simmons himself–who had to be subpoenaed to appear(!) When confronted with various improbabilities, he’d just say matter-of-factly, “That’s my testimony.”


Follow this up with HBI chief Gray Robertson’s masterful performance, and HBI came off pretty well.

Myron Levin, in his 93 article in The Nation, “Who’s Behind The Building Doctor?” describes Mr. Robertson, eloquently:

“The British-born Robertson, silver-haired and handsome, cheerful and persuasive, was a born communicator. His accent alone conveyed an air of authority. And his veneer of independence, together with his view that poor ventilation–not individual contaminants like tobacco smoke–was the main cause of indoor pollution, made him a valuable ally against the tide of antismoking bills that were threatening to engulf tobacco companies.”

I’ll only add that at first, yes, Mr. Robertson’s accent does bespeak the British Empire in all its colonial, Graham Greene brilliance and propriety. But then, as he goes along, you start to hear the Northern pronunciation and that slight Liverpudlian lilt. At some point it strikes you that Robertson sounds for all the world like he might be Ringo’s dad.

But with Robertson’s testimony sans Simmons’ charges of data-tampering and pro-smoking guidelines (Gregory Wulchin will take another swing at these this week), HBI comes out clean.

Did HBI hitch a ride on Philip Morris’ star? It seems rather that Philip Morris hitched a ride on HBI’s beat-up Chevvy–then stopped off at the next town and bought HBI a Corvette.

HBI’s mantra since even before Philip Morris was–”The Solution to Pollution is Dilution,” ie, that you don’t go after just one pollutant in a building; rather you spent gobs of money minimizing all pollutants by improving ventilation–HBI’s business. Certainly you could take out that leaking radiation cannister in the corner, but why not spend a mil or two cleaning up everything?

The Tobacco Institute’s brilliance was to recognize how seamlessly HBI’s self-interest dovetailed with Philip Morris’s self-interest. All the tobacco industry had to do was to promote, cultivate and accentuate what was already there, as they had done in numerous other instances. (A primary example: the industry in 1954 promoted W. C. Hueper’s dissent on smoking as the cause of lung cancer. The industry deluged the media until Hueper’s dissent took on an outsized impact, partially eclipsing stories on the Hammond or Wynder studies.)

But while Robertson seemed to have held his own and then some against DOJ attorney Kinner’s seemingly ineffective cross (”I’m a little confused here,” he said at one point, and NOT as a taunt to ask more questions; he really was confused.) there are still some weird things about HBI:

1. If the very first HBI/TI meeting actually occurred in 1984, 14 months before Simmons’ avowed meeting–wouldn’t there be records of work done for them in the intervening 14 months?

2. HBI’s number are shockingly low for a company that pioneered a difficult, necessary, and, you would assume, expensive ventilation-cleaning technique. Robertson said ACVA Atlantic’s (HBI’s original name) first cleaning job was for a hospital and took 10 months. A gross income of $250,000 for 1985 does not seem a lot for such a company. Even after Philip Morris referrals, gross only increased to $450,000 by 1986, and $650,000-750,000 in 1987. Even the high point of $2.6M in the early 90s does not seem a lot for this kind of company. (Myron Levin, in his August 9, 1993 article for The Nation, wrote, “the industry secretly funded a lavishly produced and expensive bimonthly publication, Healthy Buildings International Magazine, which was translated into at least five languages and distributed worldwide.”)

4. Mr. Robertson complained to Judge Kessler that HBI had lost some business because potential clients heard it was aligned with the tobacco industry(!)

3. Philip Morris continues to pay Mr. Robertson’s legal expenses, through Covington & Burling

Note: The subhead of this section refers to Mr. Robertson’s testimony, in which he refers to being “exonerated” in a DOJ investigation of HBI. Mr. Kinner tried to dispute the term “exonerated.”

“Do you realize,” Mr. Kinner asked, referring to the DOJ letter that told Mr. Robertson it was dropping the investigation, “That that kind of letter is known at the DOJ as a “cold comfort letter?”

“No,” said Mr. Robertson. Indeed, it didn’t seem to matter..

One Response to “Witness Roundup 2: HBI: Simmons, Robertson”

  1. Anne Landman Says:

    RE: “HBI’s mantra since even before Philip Morris was–’The Solution to Pollution is Dilution’ ”

    This is very interesting. In courses for my Environmental Restoration and Hazardous Waste Technology degree, one of the primary tenets they repeatedly drilled into us was that “Dilution is NOT a solution to pollution.” For instance, when remediating contaminated groundwater, it is NOT okay to simply dilute the contaminated water with more water. Proper remedial action requires that the hazardous contaminants be stripped out–e.g., evaporated, chemically chelated, filtered or otherwise diminished–to attain an acceptable level of safety. This very basic tenet of what is taught in college-level environmental remediation classes is exactly the OPPOSITE of what HBI says.

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