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Consultant poses as journalist in Monsanto trial

The entrance to the Phililip Burton Federal Building in San Francisco, where the Monsanto trial took place in March
The entrance to the Phililip Burton Federal Building in San Francisco, where the Monsanto trial took place in March AFP/File
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San Francisco (AFP)

Smiling and affable, the young woman was able to pass herself off as a fellow journalist to reporters including AFP covering a landmark trial in San Francisco on the health risks associated with the weedkiller Roundup.

The relaxed, confident thirtysomething was in fact an employee of Washington-based FTI Consulting, which has a client list that includes Roundup-maker Monsanto and its parent company Bayer.

Her assignment was to take notes on the legal proceedings that unfolded in San Francisco in March, FTI spokesman Matthew Bashalany told AFP.

"Upon learning that said employee misidentified herself during the conduct of that assignment, the firm initiated an internal review and will take necessary and appropriate steps consistent with that commitment," Bashalany said in an email.

"FTI Consulting is committed to operating under the highest standards of ethical conduct, so we take this matter very seriously."

Scrutiny of the apparent deception comes as Monsanto is accused in court of misleading people about its widely-used glyphosate-based weedkiller and the risks of developing cancer.

- 'Tactician' -

The civil trial in March was the second of three Roundup cancer cases that Monsanto has lost in California courts, with overall damages topping $2 billion.

During the hearings, the FTI employee, whose name is being withheld by AFP for her protection, claimed to be a freelance journalist who worked for the BBC and British tech news site The Inquirer.

Her page at career-focused social network LinkedIn indicated she had worked in the FTI "strategic communications" division since May of 2014.

People attending the trial, including journalists, told AFP they did not recall her mentioning any connection to FTI while discussing the Roundup case with media "colleagues" in courthouse corridors.

The BBC and The Inquirer meanwhile told AFP that the woman had not been commissioned to provide them with coverage. AFP was unable to find any tweets or other online posts by her that were about the Roundup trial.

A check after the proceedings showed that her LinkedIn profile had been changed to "consultant and freelance journalist."

The FTI blog had a three-year-old post credited to her while the website described her as a former reporter as well as an "excellent writer and tactician" who "gives life to many of our campaigns."

She declined to comment and Bayer did not respond when asked whether the company knew that a member of the FTI team had attended the trial.

Bayer said in a statement however it had a "dedicated multi-function team responsible for managing the Roundup litigation, including the Hardeman trial, and FTI Consulting is not a part of this team."

The case follows a complaint in January by environmental NGO EarthRights that two "Exxon-sponsored consultants posing as journalists" had attempted to question its legal counsel, who represents Colorado communities in climate change litigation against the oil giant.

The pair said they were working for a website called Western Wire, an offshoot of the Western Energy Alliance, but didn't initially mention, until confronted later, that the site is funded by the oil and gas industry.

EarthRights said the pair were in reality strategic communications professionals employed by FTI Consulting and working for Western Wire under a staffing contract between FTI and WEA.

FTI called the allegation of deception "false and misleading" and referred to a Western Wire statement denying ever having hidden that it was pro-oil-industry.

- Keeping lists -

German agro-chemicals and drugs giant Bayer, meanwhile, apologized last Sunday after it emerged that Monsanto had a PR agency collate lists of French politicians, scientists and journalists, with their views on pesticides and GM crops.

French authorities have opened a preliminary inquiry into the claims.

"It is clear that we apologize for what has come to light in France," Matthias Berninger, Bayer's head of public affairs, told journalists in a conference call.

But he admitted that "it's very likely that such lists also exist in other European countries."

"We consider what we have seen so far to be completely inappropriate," he said.

AFP has filed a complaint with a French regulatory body, the Commission Nationale Informatique et Libertes, because some of its journalists were on the list.

- Monsanto listening? -

Bayer finalized its $66 billion acquisition of Monsanto last year, but the blockbuster purchase has turned out to be plagued with other massive costs.

Just two months after the acquisition was completed, Monsanto lost a case to a school groundskeeper suffering from terminal non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He had sued the company over the glyphosate weedkillers Roundup and Ranger Pro.

Monsanto was initially ordered to pay $289 million to the groundskeeper, before the damages were reduced to $78.5 million.

In March, the company lost another case to an American retiree who blames his cancer on the weedkiller, and was ordered by a court to pay him $80 million.

In a third major legal blow to Monsanto, a jury in California this week ordered the chemicals giant to pay more than $2 billion in damages to a couple that sued on grounds the product caused their cancer, lawyers said.

Bayer has vowed to appeal all the verdicts.

"Monsanto needs to change its conduct; the writing is on the wall," said attorney Brent Wisner, a member of the plaintiff's legal team at the most recent Roundup trial.

"Three juries have spoken; this was a statement, and I hope Monsanto is listening."

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