The tobacco industry had a problem: growing public concern about second-hand smoke. The industry also had a solution: 'experts' who could promote the industries line. That's where the prestigious law firm of Cobington & Burling, the well-known PR firm of Fleishman-Hilliard and a small Fairfax company called Healthy Buildings International came in.

It started with two guys cleaning air ducts in an office building on I Street, at International Square. It was 1985 or 1986. One of the building's tenants, a vice president at the Tobacco Institute, stepped out of his office to ask who the cleaners were and what they were doing.

The answer was: They worked for a tiny company in Fairfax called ACVA Atlantic that had four employees and about $250,000 in annual sales. ACVA inspected and cleaned indoor air systems in office buildings around Washington. Its majority owner was a British subject named John Graham "Gray" Robertson, then about 45 years old.

The cleaners said that the man from the Tobacco Institute, the main industrywide lobbying organization of the cigarette business, should talk to the boss. A few days later an institute official placed a telephone call to Fairfax and asked, as Gray Robertson recalls, "would I be kind enough to drop in and explain what it is we were doing in the building and why?"

He did. And: "They were just fascinated."

William Kloepfer Jr. and Marvin Kastenbaum, senior officials of the Tobacco Institute, asked Robertson: Can you remember how many times you have identified tobacco smoke as being a problem during your building inspections?

"And my off-the-cuff answer," Robertson remembered in recent deposition testimony, "was hardly ever, because, number one, to me I didn't even know it was an issue at that time. Secondly, we hardly ever came across appreciable levels of smoke, and we certainly, from my memory, didn't have any complaints of smoke in buildings at that time."

The Tobacco Institute officials liked Robertson's answers very much. Robertson spoke confidently in his British accent. He had some scientific training. He knew all about building ventilation. He had no training in medicine or health, but in any event he embraced the idea that cigarette smoke was not a significant cause of indoor air pollution.

The men from the Tobacco Institute introduced Robertson to their lawyers at the prestigious Washington firm of Covington & Burling. The lawyers quickly sought Robertson's supportive testimony at a personal injury trial where a worker was claiming that he suffered from being exposed to tobacco smoke inside a building.

The Tobacco Institute officials also asked Robertson: Have you ever done much public speaking? Would you like to meet some people from our international public relations firm, Fleishman-Hillard Inc.?

Robertson said he would. He brought in some sales videos that he had made for his duct cleaning and building ventilation business and he showed them to the international media specialists from Fleishman-Hillard.

"It's magic," Robertson remembers the public relations executives saying when they saw his sales videos. "It's wonderful stuff."

Robertson explained that in his view, the key to any building's air quality was its ventilation system. Good ventilation, good air; bad ventilation, bad air. Cigarette smoking was incidental. Robertson recalls what happened next:

"Fleishman-Hillard were asked by the Tobacco Institute if they thought this was a good message that would help to go out to the media in general. And Fleishman-Hillard thought it was going to be tremendously exciting." AND IT WAS. During the next six years, Gray Robertson became one of America's leading spokesmen on indoor air quality and tobacco smoke. He changed the name of his company to Healthy Buildings International, or HBI. He accepted a monthly retainer from the Tobacco Institute of at least $20,000. Tobacco interests gave him hundreds of thousands of dollars more to report on air quality in buildings in the United States and abroad, and to spread the message that secondhand smoke was a symptom, not a cause, of indoor air pollution. Robertson's firm also took more than $1 million, passed by Philip Morris Cos. Inc. through Covington & Burling, to produce an international magazine that promoted the tobacco industry's view that indoor smoking bans were unnecessary and ill-advised. The magazine was published in seven languages and distributed from Washington to Madrid to Sydney -- without a word of printed disclosure about the tobacco money behind its pages. Robertson or his HBI colleagues testified 129 times before federal, state and local government bodies that were considering restrictions on indoor smoking; their expenses were paid by the Tobacco Institute. When HBI opened a regional office in Danvers, Mass., the Tobacco Institute kicked in an extra $8,000 monthly subsidy to pay for expenses. Some former HBI employees say that in public, HBI speakers were under strict instructions not to reveal their connections to the tobacco industry unless asked directly, and to duck if asked. Robertson and HBI deny this, saying their tobacco ties were disclosed often enough.

With Fleishman-Hillard's help -- the PR firm's fees and expenses were ultimately paid by the Tobacco Institute -- Robertson and his HBI colleagues toured American cities, promoting their theories of ventilation and decrying indoor smoking restrictions on television, radio and in print. People magazine published a puffy profile of Robertson, the "building doctor," and included a charming picture of Robertson leaning against an office building with a stethoscope. Neither in that story nor in many other media appearances were HBI's (or Fleishman-Hillard's) financial ties to tobacco revealed.

HBI's business boomed. Swelled by publicity, HBI's annual revenue grew about tenfold between 1986 and 1994, to more than $2 million -- growth that congressional investigators say "was due in large measure to the patronage of the tobacco industry." The company took on contracts to inspect the air quality in prominent government office buildings throughout the Washington area: the U.S. Capitol, the Longworth House Office Building, the CIA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Supreme Court, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the building housing the U.S. surgeon general's offices, and the Social Security Administration building in Baltimore County. HBI also inspected scores of private sector office buildings in and around Washington. These included offices managed by the Oliver Carr Co.; Children's Hospital and Washington Hospital Center; the Kennedy Center; The Washington Post; and the Federal Reserve Bank. In New York, the United Nations was a regular customer. HBI says that altogether it has inspected more than 1,000 buildings. Whether it did so properly is now a subject of dispute. Three former HBI employees claim, according to court documents, that during its alliance with the tobacco industry, HBI falsified data from indoor air inspections to downplay the significance of secondhand tobacco smoke. Robertson and HBI adamantly reject that charge, and clients such as Carr defend the quality of HBI's inspection work.

Robertson's fortunes began to turn in 1992, when a former HBI employee named Jeffrey Seckler, who had been fired for alleged expense account irregularities and poor performance, went public with charges that HBI was a fraud, a fundamentally misleading front company of the tobacco industry. By Seckler's account, HBI was like one of those phony jungle guerrilla forces the CIA used to put together when it wanted to overthrow a Third World government, with Robertson in the role of the charming, media-savvy revolutionary. Robertson and his lawyers rejected Seckler's charges and denounced him as an extortionist and a cheat. But Seckler, eventually supported by affidavits from two other former HBI employees, sued HBI under the federal False Claims Act. His lawsuit seeks damages on behalf of the U.S. government for allegedly fraudulent inspections by HBI of federal office buildings. (Under the law, adopted to encourage truth-telling about malfeasance by government contractors, Seckler stands to collect a portion of the judgment if he prevails.) In recent months, a federal grand jury in Alexandria has begun a related criminal fraud investigation into HBI's activities.

HBI's non-jury civil trial is scheduled to open next month in U.S. District Court in Washington before Senior Judge William B. Bryant. For three years, Robertson and HBI fought the allegations against them tooth and nail, denying them virtually wholesale and calling them a waste of the court's time. More recently, as Judge Bryant ruled that the case should go to trial, and as the grand jury opened its criminal probe, Robertson's defense strategy has emphasized the irrelevance of HBI's tobacco industry work. In a deposition given last December and in court papers filed earlier this year, Robertson -- who declined to be interviewed for this article -- acknowledges that HBI accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees annually from the tobacco industry; that he published the indoor air magazine with money channeled from Philip Morris through Covington & Burling; that he went on elaborate media tours funded by the Tobacco Institute; that he worked closely with tobacco companies and their lawyers; and that his financial ties to tobacco were not always disclosed -- although, Robertson argues repeatedly, the fact that he consulted for tobacco interests was disclosed often enough to be "a matter of public record."

Robertson acknowledges these many facts and then, sometimes directly and sometimes by implication, he voices a defense that he and his lawyers apparently intend to muster in federal court.

Essentially, their defense is: So what? THERE ARE COMPLEX LEGAL aspects of that question to be decided by Judge Bryant and the Alexandria grand jury. It is possible that the civil courts may hold that HBI's failure to disclose was not fraudulent or was not financially damaging. The application of a criminal standard may involve other legal issues. But "so what" is also a moral question, and in fact, from the very beginning, concerns about the vulnerability of the tobacco industry on moral grounds shaped the projects launched after Gray Robertson's first visit to the Tobacco Institute.

For tobacco companies, the rise of public concern over indoor, secondhand cigarette smoke was "the most dangerous development to the viability of the tobacco industry that has yet occurred," as a landmark internal report by the Roper Organization, commissioned by the Tobacco Institute, declared in 1978.

The reason: If secondhand, passively breathed cigarette smoke was proved to be harmful, the entire moral and regulatory framework surrounding the tobacco industry would be altered. Americans had known since the early 1960s that smoking was potentially lethal. But smoking was seen by much of the public and regulated by the government as if it were a fully voluntary and individualistic choice -- a regrettable choice, perhaps, yet freely made. But if passive smoking were lethal, the free choice defense was no longer viable. In that case, innocent children were being harmed by their parents and office workers were being harmed by their colleagues. Such a perception would lead almost certainly to indoor smoking limits and might push the tobacco industry toward extinction.

The Tobacco Institute commissioned the Roper Organization to conduct private polls that would investigate these questions every two years, beginning in 1966. By 1978, the firm had discovered, to the industry's alarm, that public attitudes toward secondhand smoke were changing fast. Roper found that "nearly six out of ten believe that smoking is hazardous to the nonsmoker's health, up sharply over the last four years," its report said. "The issue . . . is no longer what the smoker does to himself, but what he does to others." To defuse public concern about secondhand smoke, Roper advised the industry to launch a massive, sustained campaign with the "number one objective" of developing "clear-cut, credible, medical evidence that passive smoking is not harmful to the nonsmoker's health."

There were two ways, potentially, to do this: You could argue that secondhand smoke was not medically dangerous in any form, or you could argue that cigarette smoke as encountered passively in office buildings and other indoor spaces occurred in such low concentrations as to be harmless. The tobacco industry chose the latter strategy. So, because its argument "was based on levels of exposure, not health effects per se, the industry recruited indoor air quality specialists, not doctors or medical researchers, to implement its strategy," concludes a 1994 staff report by the health and environment subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives, then chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), an anti-smoking activist.

That's where Gray Robertson and HBI came in. Robertson's duct cleaners wandered into the Tobacco Institute's headquarters at the dawn of a crucial period. In 1986, the surgeon general issued the first government-sponsored report declaring that secondhand tobacco smoke was medically dangerous. "Involuntary smoking is a cause of cancer, including lung cancer, in healthy nonsmokers," the report said. Victims included "the children of parents who smoke." Immediately, government authorities and private corporations across the country began to discuss whether and how they should restrict smoking in offices, restaurants, hotels, prisons, military barracks and other public or semipublic spaces. And the tobacco industry knew that the battle over passive smoking in America would become a leading indicator for indoor smoking rulemakers in Europe and, eventually, around the world.

In the face of this challenge, the industry's executives, their lobbyists in Washington and their lawyers at Covington & Burling were all determined to fight ruthlessly to keep the tobacco business alive and healthy. EARLY IN 1989, JEFFREY SECKLER, a slim, brown-haired salesman looking for a break, pulled up in a Mercedes-Benz to HBI's headquarters on Democracy Lane, in an office park near the Fairfax County Courthouse. Seckler, as he tells the story in interviews and in an affidavit filed in court, was in the market for a new job, and HBI had placed an employment ad in the newspaper.

Gray Robertson needed salesmen because HBI was in a phase of heady expansion. A chemist-turned-salesman who had bounced around the ventilation business on both sides of the Atlantic, Robertson had come to Northern Virginia to strike out on his own with a small service company in 1981. Now, having forged a financial alliance with the tobacco industry, Robertson was embarking on his most audacious public campaigning on the secondhand smoke issue. He needed help -- he wanted "clones" of himself to fan out around the country and speak to government bodies and the media, Seckler recalls. Explaining the job to Seckler, Robertson eased into his central purpose.

"There's something we need to know about because we expect you to some extent to get involved," Robertson said during the initial job interview, as Seckler remembers it. "Just coincidentally, our position on secondhand smoke -- the tobacco industry likes what we say about that. We probably would want to get you involved in that sort of thing." Any problem with that? Robertson asked.

"I'm not a technical guy," Seckler recalls answering. "If you guys feel that what you say is a straight story, I don't have any discomfort saying it."

Robertson remembers Seckler going even further; in his deposition testimony he quotes Seckler saying that day, "I think to be doing something that's doing good for the general public would give me tremendous satisfaction, and that's why I would like to get involved."

Seckler got the job at a salary of about $50,000 annually. His impression, he says, was that while he might do some public speaking about indoor pollution issues, his main job would be to go out and sell office building managers on the merits of HBI's inspection services. But it didn't turn out that way. Seckler says he soon found that Robertson wanted him to concentrate almost exclusively on the indoor smoking issue. His first assignment was to write up spiels about why cigarette smoking was not the main cause of indoor air problems -- Seckler was to come up with a 30-second version, a two-minute version and a five-minute version so that he could speak effectively no matter how much time was available on television or at a public hearing.

Robertson and Seckler talked about "what happens if . . ." scenarios for Seckler's upcoming public appearances; Robertson emphasized that Seckler should keep as quiet as possible about HBI's financial ties to tobacco, Seckler recalls. "It was very clear that unless they say, Who's paying your expenses?' . . . it should just be avoided," Seckler says.

Over lunch one day at the Black-Eyed Pea in Fairfax City, Robertson explained to Seckler the central significance of HBI's relationship with the tobacco industry. "We're a very important part of what they're trying to do in terms of the public's perception of secondhand smoke," Robertson said, according to Seckler. "It's dramatically increased my net worth."

In his deposition, Robertson specifically denies making the remark about his net worth, saying it wasn't true factually and it was "not a phrase I would use." But Robertson agrees that in these early discussions with Seckler, "I would guess he would be asked to understand what our position was on environmental tobacco smoke."

Robertson sent Seckler to media training classes at Michael Sheehan Associates Inc. in Washington where Seckler was taught how to handle questions from the press and how to speak effectively in television sound bite form. The trainers taught Seckler to smile and shake his head doubtfully whenever it was suggested that secondhand smoke was harmful. In Seckler's class was another new HBI spokesman-salesman, Simon Turner, the son of a senior executive at Britain's Tobacco Manufacturers Association. An official from the Tobacco Institute was present throughout the training sessions, Seckler recalls.

Afterward, Seckler hit the road. Robertson changed his title to senior consultant because, as Seckler describes it, Robertson thought it would make him "more believable." Seckler began testifying before local, city and state government committees across the country. His first appearance was on April 3, 1989, before the Oregon House Environment and Energy Committee; Seckler spoke against a bill introduced to restrict indoor smoking. Afterward, a Tobacco Institute official, Diane Avedon, reported favorably on Seckler's performance, according to a memo in court files.

"This was Jeff's initiation to public testimony," Avedon wrote. "He was well prepared, polished and professional . . . I have no hesitation in recommending Jeff for further testimony."

Indeed, Seckler says his work for the Tobacco Institute soon became so extensive that HBI arranged for the institute to pay for his services at a billing rate of $1,500 per day. HBI disputes some of Seckler's account but says that the company "made arrangements regarding billing a portion of Mr. Seckler's time . . . for consulting projects."

Fleishman-Hillard escorted Seckler on whirlwind media tours. Seckler would arrive in St. Louis or Omaha or Kansas City, rise before dawn for daybreak TV and radio interviews, shuttle from station to station for the noontime news, and usually rendezvous with a few print reporters on the science and health beats at local newspapers. Seckler says that his Fleishman-Hillard handlers were deceptive about HBI's ties to tobacco during these tours, an allegation Fleishman-Hillard denies. Fleishman-Hillard's fees were paid by the tobacco industry, but the firm created the impression that it was working for HBI, Seckler says. Nor did Fleishman-Hillard disclose HBI's retainers from the Tobacco Institute and Philip Morris, Seckler says. The typical routine, he says, was for Fleishman-Hillard to call around to local TV stations and newspapers, describing Seckler as a "sick building specialist" who "just happened to be in town" to see clients and who was available for some quick interviews about indoor air quality. Seckler remembers sitting in bars and restaurants between interview sessions, listening to his Fleishman-Hillard handler make this pitch from pay phones, scratching for the next TV booking. In fact, Seckler says, he had no clients at all in the towns where he turned up on the tours managed by Fleishman-Hillard.

"I guarantee there was never a disclosure of who was paying" for his media travels, Seckler says. "It boggles my mind that someone in the press never asked how some little company could afford all this." A press release from this period on HBI stationery, introduced as evidence in a court file, describes HBI's client base as "multinational companies, hospitals, schools and government agencies around the world." Nowhere in the three-page release is there any mention of the tobacco industry.

Robertson and Simon Turner of HBI went out on such tours, too. Robertson's typical spiel compared secondhand cigarette smoke to "the canary in the coal mine"; it was best seen as a symptom of poor ventilation, not a cause of bad indoor air. By this logic, smoking bans provided "a false sense of security" by hiding the underlying problem of poor air circulation. Seckler came to see Robertson's set piece as nothing but an artful dodge. For one thing, inadequate ventilation in many sealed office buildings was simply insoluble; it was part of many modern buildings' basic structures. For another, Robertson's logic did not account for the smoke a worker would breathe while sitting at a desk two feet away from an active smoker. And if tobacco smoke was medically dangerous, wouldn't buildings be better off without it than with it? Overall, Seckler thought Robertson's arguments had only one meaningful basis: They were endorsed by his paymasters in the tobacco industry.

Robertson was questioned at his deposition about how he handled the subject of his financial ties to tobacco when performing for the media.

Q. Did you ever disclose to the media or the public that the tours were being sponsored by the Tobacco Institute?

A. I was never asked.

The "Code of Professional Standards" of the Public Relations Society of America holds that a member "shall not use any individual or organization . . . professing to be independent or unbiased, but actually serving another or undisclosed interest." Richard Sullivan, chief of Fleishman-Hillard's Washington office, says his firm's representation of HBI was consistent with that standard because, as Sullivan recalls it, Fleishman-Hillard's press kits disclosed that the Tobacco Institute was an HBI client. But Sullivan is unable to produce any such kits as evidence because, he says, they were returned to HBI after Fleishman-Hillard's work ended, in keeping with routine practice. Fleishman-Hillard -- the nation's sixth-largest PR firm, with $92 million in billings last year -- knew that HBI was reimbursed by the Tobacco Institute for the media tour expenses, Sullivan says. But Fleishman-Hillard sent its bills to HBI and did not know the arrangement was "a direct pass-through" to the tobacco industry. It was not his firm's policy, Sullivan says, to "go out and say, Who's paying?' "

On the broad issue of disclosure, Robertson, his lawyers and the Tobacco Institute all argue that HBI's consulting work for the tobacco industry was never a secret and was acknowledged publicly often enough to meet any reasonable standard of fairness. Robertson has claimed in writing that he and HBI "have acknowledged, publicly and repeatedly, the work that we have done for the tobacco industry. We have never denied' undertaking such work, nor have we acknowledged it reluctantly.' " Court and public records confirm that in at least four appearances on Capitol Hill and before local government bodies, Robertson noted that he was representing the Tobacco Institute. The Tobacco Institute's Brennan Dawson says that HBI disclosed its tobacco ties "in any number of places." A few press reports from the time of HBI's heaviest schedule of public appearances note a relationship between HBI and tobacco. None of these confirmed disclosures offers a full picture of the nature and depth of HBI's financial relationship with the tobacco industry; the typical impression HBI sought to convey was that it happened to do some consulting work occasionally for tobacco interests, according to Seckler. Robertson acknowledges that he did not use words like "retainer" in public to describe his work for tobacco firms. But Robertson and his advocates argue that there was enough disclosure of consulting work for the ties to be regarded as "a matter of public record."

There are also, however, numerous instances in the record when HBI's ties to tobacco were clearly not disclosed. It is impossible, six or seven years after the fact, to reconstruct exactly how often such acknowledgments were made in municipal hearing rooms or on drive-time talk radio. Seckler says disclosure of any kind was very rare and that active deception was common. Robertson, HBI and the Tobacco Institute say otherwise. Courts may ultimately decide. But it is worth noting that in HBI's civil fraud case, its defense is not based primarily on the contention that the firm disclosed its tobacco ties to the federal office building managers who hired HBI for indoor air quality inspections. Instead, HBI's lawyers argue that, legally, the company had no obligation to disclose its tobacco consulting contracts while pursuing work from the federal government.

Moreover, HBI's nationwide media and government testimony tours were not its only attempts to influence indoor air policy, nor the only times when its silence about its tobacco links raised serious questions about whether the company intended to deceive. NOT LONG AFTER Seckler was hired, Robertson sent him to a meeting of the Business Council on Indoor Air, or BCIA, a lobbying group then housed in downtown Washington. The council, which recently moved to Fairfax, is composed of such Fortune 500 companies as Owens-Corning Inc. and Dow Chemical Corp. -- it has no tobacco company members.

Robertson hooked up with BCIA when the council asked him to make one of his standard presentations "on what causes indoor air quality, et cetera," as he recalls it. Companies like Owens-Corning were worried about government "witch hunts" into the contributions of products like fiberglass to indoor air pollution, Robertson says. "They were fascinated" by his ventilation speech "and said that they would be very keen if I would join the group."

At his first meeting, Seckler sat astonished as BCIA named him chairman of its technical committee. He was chosen "over PhDs and engineers with far more knowledge." Seckler's technical education consisted of a BA in psychology. BCIA membership cost $15,000 a year. The Tobacco Institute reimbursed HBI for the fee. Seckler says that throughout his service at the council, he was never sure whether its members understood that he was there as a paid-for representative of the tobacco industry.

Robertson recalls, "I think all the members of BCIA knew that I'm a consultant to the tobacco industry, but I was there to talk only indoor air quality. In fact, I don't think from my knowledge that the question of smoking ever came up with BCIA. They weren't interested in that issue, per se."

BCIA's founder and president, Paul A. Cammer, says he did not know about the nature or extent of Robertson's relationship with the tobacco industry, although he and others at the organization knew "that HBI had tobacco interests." Because BCIA emphatically "is not a tobacco association," Cammer says, he only permitted Robertson's participation because Robertson "adhered to the rules" and did not press for a specific focus on secondhand smoking. As to Seckler, "to tell you the truth, I didn't know what his qualifications were" and it did not matter that much because Seckler's job was "to move papers, coordinate, collect, put things together," Cammer says.

With Seckler as chairman, BCIA's technical committee went to work lobbying the Environmental Protection Agency on indoor air issues. The BCIA committee set up meetings with EPA officials to gather information and exchange views on internal federal scientific research on indoor air.

"Our membership is composed of firms with analytical and engineering expertise in monitoring, controlling and improving the quality of the indoor environment," said a council letter to EPA Administrator William Reilly dated April 21, 1989, that Seckler helped to prepare. "We encourage EPA and other federal agencies to use BCIA as the primary link to the private sector in the identification, development, and implementation of indoor air research programs."

In this same period, HBI embarked on another project of even greater scale: Healthy Buildings International Magazine, a glossy journal about indoor air issues that would eventually be distributed worldwide, translated into Spanish, French, Italian, German, Swedish and Finnish.

The idea for the HBI magazine began with a conversation between Robertson and John Rupp, a senior partner at Covington & Burling.

Robertson recalls that Rupp asked if "there was any way we could produce a newsletter, where we could keep the building management community apprised of new developments in indoor air quality." Robertson says he thought to himself, "Well, I like the concept, but . . . let me think about the phrase newsletter.' "

Robertson asked Rupp, "Can I stew on it for a while, think about it?" Rupp agreed.

Rupp's idea was apparently connected to the tobacco industry's plan to promote internationally "the HBI concept," as it was called in an unsigned memo ascribed by Seckler to Philip Morris. While tobacco consumption was declining in the United States, it was growing rapidly overseas. Strategically, the future of the tobacco industry was -- and remains -- international. Europe had few restrictions on indoor smoking in those days, but the issue was beginning to bubble and HBI's ideas provided the tobacco industry with a means to influence the early debates. Indeed, Philip Morris had paid for HBI inspectors to tour Switzerland and other countries during the 1980s; HBI inspected 28 buildings and provided Philip Morris fodder for the company's campaign to dissuade European authorities from adopting indoor smoking restrictions. Philip Morris paid HBI $5,000 per building inspected and reimbursed the firm for its inspectors' luxurious stays in five-star hotels, ski resorts and other tourist destinations. Asked to comment on its relationship with HBI, Philip Morris issued a prepared statement praising the quality of the firm's work and saying that HBI's "research demonstrates that smokers and nonsmokers can be accommodated with . . . attention to proper ventilation."

Prompted by Rupp, Robertson returned to Fairfax and drafted something "more promotional" and "more attractive" than a straight indoor air newsletter. He showed his prototype to the Covington & Burling partner.

"This is fascinating," Robertson recalls Rupp saying.

Rupp explained, Robertson says, that Philip Morris had asked him if there was some way to produce regular information on indoor air quality issues for an international audience. So Robertson met with officials from Philip Morris and gave them "this literally cardboard draft, you know, pasted and glued model of my first thing."

The Philip Morris officials replied, Robertson recalls, "Wonderful, we would be very keen to get from you some fee structure."

So Robertson gave them some fee structure -- he asked for and eventually received from Philip Morris well over $500,000 a year for two years to produce eight issues of the HBI magazine, including funds to cover all production and printing costs as well as a substantial fee to edit the journal out of HBI headquarters. HBI sent the magazine out for free to between 300,000 and 350,000 "subscribers" worldwide. Recipients included every congressional office on Capitol Hill. (Paid subscriptions numbered only about 400 and provided only about $24,000 in annual income, Seckler recalls.) Nowhere in the magazine's pages, HBI acknowledges in court filings, was the tobacco industry's funding for the journal disclosed.

Seckler recalls in his affidavit that the editor of the HBI magazine said that articles had to be sent for approval to tobacco representatives such as Covington & Burling and the Tobacco Institute. Robertson adamantly denies that he ceded editorial control of the magazine to anyone. Covington & Burling backs Robertson's statement. Michael Price, a former HBI employee hostile to Seckler and supportive of HBI, notes in deposition testimony that the authors of two articles in the inaugural issue of the magazine were Fleishman-Hillard employees.

Philip Morris did not pay HBI directly for the magazine. Instead, it funneled the money through Covington & Burling's accounts. Seckler and his lawyer regard this as evidence of an intent to hide the role of tobacco money in the magazine its partner Rupp had conceived. Rupp declined to comment about why the money was routed through Covington & Burling. Another partner at the firm, Edward Dunkelberger, responded in a letter, "It is of course not unusual or improper for law firms to be used by clients to verify and arrange for payment of lawful and appropriate expenses on their behalf." Dunkelberger offered a "categorical" denial that "our firm has acted unlawfully or unethically in this or any other matter in which we represent tobacco interests."

In 1992, when Seckler's lawyer, Alexander Pires Jr., was preparing the civil fraud lawsuit against HBI, Rupp tracked Pires down at a Florida Keys tennis resort, where Pires was on vacation with his family. Pires took the call at poolside, he recalls.

"Look, if you file this lawsuit, you're going to be one sorry individual," Rupp said angrily, as Pires remembers it.

"Do we have to talk about this?" Pires asked. "I'm on vacation."

Rupp raised his voice. "Yes we do . . . If you file this lawsuit I will bring you and your firm before the bar" for professional misconduct, a threat as yet unfulfilled. Rupp denies making the remarks recalled by Pires.

Pires says that he didn't understand at the time why Rupp was so agitated, but he now believes, because of the admissions made in court papers by HBI, that Rupp was upset because he "fully understood the relationship between the tobacco industry and HBI {and} knew Covington & Burling's involvement might be exposed," to the firm's embarrassment.

Says Dunkelberger, on behalf of Covington & Burling, "Our work on matters for the tobacco industry, as well as for other clients, has always involved appropriate legal representation consistent with the highest professional standards." THE MOST SERIOUS allegation in the lawsuit against HBI is that it falsified scientific data from building inspections to downplay the significance of secondhand smoke.

The charge comes most forcefully from two former HBI employees, Reginald Simmons and Gregory Wulchin, who worked as field technicians for the company, measuring and reporting on the air quality in buildings inspected by HBI.

Simmons says in an affidavit that he was instructed by Peter Binnie, Robertson's minority partner and key aide at HBI, that he should measure air quality only "in lobbies and other easily accessible areas where circulation was best" so as to reduce the readings on cigarette smoke. Robertson denies that. Simmons says he was told that "banning or restricting tobacco use or smoking was never to be recommended" to HBI clients. Robertson says that HBI did recommend smoking restrictions sometimes.

Every inspection report he prepared, Simmons says, was reviewed and edited by either Robertson or Binnie, and sometimes, he claims, field data was altered and conclusions were changed. It was "standard practice" for Binnie to reduce the numbers from two inspection tests that counted and weighed airborne particles, Simmons says. When Simmons complained, Binnie's "sole comment and response was that the tests were not reliable and it was not necessary for us to alarm the business owners." Clients "were never advised of the alteration of the data," Simmons recalls, concluding, "The inspection reports of federal government buildings were false."

Robertson, who says in deposition testimony that he fired Simmons for being drunk on the job, acknowledges that he and Binnie reviewed and edited inspection reports, but says they did so only to make sure the reports were readable and accurate. Field measurements from faulty or unreliable equipment occasionally were adjusted in the editing process, and measurements were calibrated, but only in keeping with sound scientific analysis. The idea that HBI conspired to falsify inspection reports is "complete and utter nonsense," Robertson says. Simmons declined to comment for this article beyond the affidavit he has given in the court case; he has not yet had the opportunity to respond in testimony to Robertson's allegations about his job performance.

Wulchin's affidavit backs up Simmons on the data alteration issue. A field technician at HBI from 1988 to 1993, Wulchin says that "HBI mischaracterized and made numerous alterations in the data I collected." Wulchin reached this conclusion after reviewing, as part of Waxman's congressional investigation, the final reports that Robertson and Binnie sent to clients on the basis of Wulchin's field data. In one case, Wulchin says, HBI executives even altered data from a 1989 inspection Wulchin ran at the Tobacco Institute's headquarters. In another case, he alleges, Robertson altered his field notes, cutting by half a high reading of airborne particles Wulchin had taken during an inspection of the Imperial Bank Building in San Diego. "Although Mr. Robertson was not present during the inspection . . . he did not contact me before changing the measurement," Wulchin says. Robertson says he had scientifically sound reasons for changing the measurement.

The tobacco industry subsidized and widely publicized HBI's scientific findings, helping to shape the public's understanding about the potential danger of secondhand smoke -- or, as the industry would have it, the lack of danger. HBI accepted just over $200,000 from the Center for Indoor Air Research, a tobacco-funded group, to produce what HBI called "the single largest and most representative estimate" of workplace exposure to secondhand smoke ever made in the United States. The 1989 project involved 36,000 measurements in 585 different buildings. Its findings, which held that secondhand smoke typically occurred in such low concentrations in offices as to be of little concern, were cited over and over in public forums by HBI and tobacco industry representatives.

Four years later, Waxman's congressional investigators retained Alfred Lowery, a scientist at the Naval Research Laboratory, to review the project's measurements. Lowery said in a report that HBI's conclusions were "marred by unsubstantiated data, discrepancies, and miscalculations." Lowery said his review raises "serious questions of scientific fraud." The congressional investigators concluded that there was "a widespread pattern of significant data alterations" in the study. Robertson says Lowery's analysis was wrong, and he defends the HBI study's findings and integrity. WHAT DID GRAY ROBERTSON want from all of this?

There was the money, of course. Seckler recalls seeing a five-year HBI financial plan written several years after Robertson first hooked up with the Tobacco Institute. It showed combined executive salaries for Robertson and Binnie of $400,000 annually, Seckler remembers. Robertson's deposition testimony makes no reference to his compensation, although he denies that his alliance with tobacco interests increased his net worth significantly.

Yet HBI grew by leaps and bounds after 1986. Robertson owns HBI with Binnie, also a British native. (Around the time Robertson hooked up with the tobacco industry, he says, he bought out several other passive investors back in Britain who had helped stake the company at its founding.) Robertson also brought his family into the deal -- his wife was HBI's bookkeeper for a time, and his brother Joe opened an HBI office in Australia to pursue the same line of work.

On the other hand, if money was a key motivation, Robertson did not live extravagantly even after his company began to expand. His modest seven-room house in Fairfax County, near George Mason University, has an assessed value today of $177,215. Robertson did have one visible indulgence, by Seckler's account: He belonged to a private country club, where he played golf ardently. Seckler recalls that Robertson drove a new company-leased Lincoln while at work, but his garage at home was unpretentious: Robertson and his wife are the registered owners today of two Fords of late-1980s vintage and a 1993 Honda.

The thrill of his adventure in public policy may have been more important to Robertson than its material rewards. Seckler recalls that Robertson described himself as a retired mountain climber who had once liked to scale sheer cliffs. Robertson said he used to drive fast cars for thrills and pleasure, once wrecking a Jaguar at high speed, Seckler remembers. Robertson was intensely competitive; Seckler recalls that he once declared that "nobody should ever bet against me because I can do anything I put my mind to."

Seckler and other estranged former employees call Robertson arrogant, a man who thought he was smarter than nearly everyone around him and whose greatest apparent joy came from proving it so, especially through salesmanship. Robertson has "an ego the size of Texas," says Seckler. "He could sell ice to the Eskimos. For a buck he will tell anybody whatever they want to hear." Indeed, Robertson frequently charmed his enemies. An attorney who cross-examined him says he "looks like what you'd want your grandfather to look like." James L. Repace, an EPA research scientist who has heatedly attacked Robertson's scientific work, adds nonetheless of Robertson, "I don't think he's an unpleasant sort of fellow."

In his deposition testimony, Robertson comes across as self-confident, pleased with his accomplishments, and dismissive of his critics. But in the transcript, there is one subject that repeatedly goads him, noticeably altering his tone: Jeffrey Seckler. When Seckler's name comes up during the questioning, sarcasm and emotion tend to shape Robertson's replies.

"I didn't seek Mr. Seckler," Robertson declares at one point. "He sought me."

Whatever Seckler may have believed or said about the harmlessness of secondhand tobacco smoke, Robertson insists, was "something he {Seckler} believed in himself." Robertson has additional ammunition: what Seckler admits about his own conduct.

Robertson fired Seckler in late 1991 for poor sales performance and for falsifying his expense accounts. Seckler rejects the allegation about his sales record -- he says he led HBI in opening new accounts the year he was fired -- but concedes that he fiddled his expenses, saying he only did what others did, with a wink from the company. Seckler says that he was told by his bosses that everyone at HBI milked the tobacco industry for extra expenses -- weekend dinners out with spouses were submitted as travel expenses, for example.

More damaging to Seckler's status as a moralist-whistleblower is his acknowledgment that, once he was discharged by HBI, his first plan was to start his own indoor air company and to solicit support from the tobacco companies. Seckler says Robertson told him he would help. Seckler went so far as to meet with tobacco executives in search of financial support. But he became convinced that Robertson was trying to undermine his efforts. Seckler says he sought compensation from Robertson to make up for his lost business opportunities; HBI calls these approaches a form of extortion because, the company's lawyers say, Seckler threatened that if he didn't get paid, he would tell his story to the media.

In June 1992, Seckler went public, granting an interview to NBC, which broadcast on its "Nightly News" a report that HBI was beholden to the tobacco industry. A month later, Seckler met with one of HBI's lawyers, Jeffrey Howard, of the Washington firm of Crowell & Moring. According to Howard, Seckler said that more stories were yet to be done by CNN and NBC, but that if Seckler was paid for his lost business opportunities, the stories would stop.

Seckler denies threatening HBI in this way, although his lawyer, Pires, acknowledges that there were meetings with Howard and HBI in this period to seek a settlement of Seckler's dispute with Robertson. JUDGE BRYANT, WHO HEARD all of these vituperative allegations and more during the pretrial phase of the civil fraud suit, concluded that despite the evidence about Seckler's conduct, the case warranted a full trial.

At a hearing last November, the judge commented wryly: "I've been with the case a while, living with it for a while; I haven't discerned any halos anywhere."

Next month, if all goes according to schedule, Robertson, now 55, and Seckler, 51, will sit in Bryant's courtroom, each facing the ultimate salesman's challenge: to make himself credible before an impartial judge. The evidence in the case is by now so wide-ranging that neither of them alone can hope to decide the outcome, but their relative persuasiveness will surely be one important factor in the trial's result.

In the wider world, the debate about secondhand smoke and indoor air quality that HBI sought so elaborately to influence continues unresolved. In the United States, the tide has turned in favor of indoor smoking restrictions. A landmark EPA finding that secondhand smoke is a "Group A" human carcinogen -- known, not merely suspected, to be lethal -- contributed to that change. As the Bush administration prepared to leave office, the EPA declared that secondhand smoke causes 3,000 American deaths from lung cancer each year, and between 150,000 and 300,000 cases of bronchitis and asthma in infants up to 18 months, including more than 7,500 cases that require a trip to the hospital. Yet there is still no governmentwide ban on smoking in federal offices. Indoor air rules vary markedly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Overseas, indoor smoking restrictions are only just beginning to take hold in Europe; in most of the rest of the world, there are virtually no rules.

The international debate no longer benefits from the contributions of the HBI magazine; not long after Seckler went public with his fraud allegations, the magazine was closed by what Robertson calls mutual agreement with its backers. HBI, however, continues with its building inspection work. As of the time of Robertson's deposition late last year, HBI also was still receiving a monthly retainer from the Tobacco Institute.

And of course, the tobacco industry, despite the alarms sounded by the Roper Organization back in 1978, has managed to remain profitable. Morton Mintz was a Washington Post reporter for nearly 30 years. His last article for the Magazine was about a year in the life of Philip Morris's Washington lobbyists. Bob Pack, a journalist and author based in Bethesda, contributed to this article. CAPTION: "Building doctor" Gray Robertson, in a 1989 photograph from People magazine. CAPTION: Fired in 1991, Jeffrey Seckler is suing HBI under the federal False Claims Act. CAPTION: HBI says that it has tested air quality in more than 1,000 buildings, including the ones shown at the right and on subsequent pages. CAPTION: Fleishman-Hillard coordinated Seckler's whirlwind media tours. CAPTION: HBI produced its magazine with more than $1 million in tobacco money. CAPTION: Covington & Burling channeled funds for the magazine to HBI.