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Pesticide Manufacturer Targeted UC Berkeley Professor

Newly released documents reveal that Syngenta, the maker of atrazine, attempted to personally discredit a Cal professor whose research suggests that the herbicide feminizes male frogs.



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According to memos and emails between Syngenta and the public relations firms it hired, the company also secretly paid a stable of seemingly independent academics and other "experts" to extol the economic benefits of atrazine and downplay its environmental and health risks, without disclosing their financial ties to the company. At the same time, the company provided strict parameters for what these experts would say.

Don Coursey, Ameritech Professor of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, collected $500 an hour from Syngenta to write economic analyses touting the necessity of atrazine, according to an April 25, 2006, email from Coursey to Ford of Syngenta. The company supplied Coursey with the data he was to cite, edited his work, and paid him to speak with newspapers, television stations, and radio broadcasters about his reports, without revealing the nature of his arrangement with the corporation, according to Ford's deposition. Coursey's work, presented in 2010 at the National Press Club, was widely picked up as independent analysis by newspapers across the country. Coursey also is affiliated with the Heartland Institute, a libertarian nonprofit focused on environmental regulations.

In one document dated 2005, Ford noted areas of vulnerabilities of a Madison County judge that the corporation thought might be assigned to the case: "Not showing up for work. Personal conduct. Skybox from Tillery. Dating websites – pic in robes."

Stephen Tillery, whose firm, Korein Tillery, represented plaintiffs in the class-action suit against Syngenta, said his firm had never given the judge a skybox. "I was never with the judge in a skybox," Tillery said, adding, "He was not the judge in the case. They thought he might be, and they were looking for ways to disqualify him."

The allegation over the skybox was the basis of a formal complaint Syngenta filed against Tillery with the Illinois Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission. The complaint was dismissed as without merit.

At least four public relations firms were hired to work on the Syngenta campaign, according to the documents. The White House Writers Group, based in Washington, DC, and Jayne Thompson & Associates, based in Chicago, were heavily involved. Invoices show that the White House Writers Group received more than $1.6 million in 2010 and 2011 from the Syngenta campaign. Thompson is Illinois' former first lady, wife of former Governor Jim Thompson.

"They did everything they could with dirty tricks," Tillery said. "The extent they went to was unprecedented." He added that only one firm working on behalf of Syngenta, McDermott, Will & Emery of Chicago, did not engage in "dirty tricks."

UC Berkeley's Hayes, a leading atrazine researcher and critic, became a major target. His published research showed that exposure to atrazine chemically castrates male frogs and makes them viable females, able to produce eggs that can be fertilized.

Hayes began his atrazine research in 1997 with a study funded by Novartis Agribusiness, one of two corporations that would later form Syngenta. Hayes said that when he got results Novartis did not expect or want, the corporation refused to allow him to publish them. He secured other funding, replicated his work, and released the results: exposure to atrazine creates hermaphroditic frogs. That started an epic feud between the scientist and the corporation.

The recently released documents show that the company commissioned a psychological profile of Hayes. In her notes taken during a 2005 meeting, Ford of Syngenta referred to Hayes as "paranoid schizo and narcissistic."

Syngenta tracked Hayes' speaking engagements and arranged for trained critics to attend each event, sometimes videotaping his remarks, according to a strategy proposed in 2006 memos by Jayne Thompson and later confirmed by Hayes. Syngenta explored the idea of purchasing "Tyrone Hayes" as a search word on the Internet and directing searches to its own marketing materials, but appeared to have ultimately decided against it.

Hayes said he had been unaware that Syngenta had discussed purchasing his name as an Internet search word. "Given some of the things they did, that doesn't surprise me," he said. "This clearly shows they went beyond science and academia. It was all PR and tricks."

Hayes readily admits he has "crossed the line" from dispassionate academic to anti-atrazine warrior. He raps about atrazine and has a website, "," with information on the dangers of the herbicide. Asked why he has become increasingly vocal, Hayes said, "I went to Harvard on scholarships. I owe you! I did not go to school to let someone pay me off to say things that are not true."

In heated and sometimes mocking emails to Syngenta, Hayes has rapped and used profanities and sexual taunts.

The corporation filed an ethics complaint with UC Berkeley and publicly released the emails in 2010. The ethics complaint was judged to be without merit.

Hayes accused Syngenta of pressuring him through UC Berkeley officials. He said he now pays as much as twenty times more than other researchers for his lab operations. He added that his federal grant applications have been getting the highest scores in evaluations, but are being turned down. He suspects the company of being involved in the sudden hurdles he is facing.

Hayes said Syngenta employees had threatened him verbally and said they were going after his family, but this was the first time he knew these plans were in writing. "They impacted my professional and personal life," he said. "It's sobering to get substantiation of the verbal attacks they made."

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