Priests join in the pressure to force split of RJR Nabisco

Food giant faces sermon on the evils of tobacco at its general meeting

DAVID USBORNE

New York

The odds that RJR Nabisco may be forced by its shareholders into an early spin-off of its food division have shortened significantly thanks to the persistence of an unlikely foe: the Roman Catholic church.

Specifically, two groups of clergy have been given formal clearance by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to submit a resolution to the company's next general meeting in April, demanding the immediate separation of its food and tobacco interests.

By their action, the clergy have found themselves in alliance with two rather better-known corporate figures also pressing for the break-up of RJR Nabisco.

Carl Icahn and Bennett LeBow earlier this week launched a consent solicitation seeking backing from other shareholders.

Together Mr LeBow, a Florida financier, and Mr Icahn hold 13 million shares in RJR Nabisco and could represent a serious threat to the company's management, which contends that it is aiming at a spin-off of the Nabisco division in the future, but not before 1997.

As well as seeking support for a spin-off resolution, the pair are also plotting to put in place a new board.

The clergy, by contrast, have only 980 shares in the company between them.

Their action may prove the more potent, however. While the LeBow-Icahn resolution would require an absolute majority of all shareholders for passage, the clergy's needs only a majority of shares actually voted.

And while RJR Nabisco has not flinched from hurling vitriol at Mr Icahn and MrLeBow - accusing them of conspiring eventually to take over the whole company - taking on the clergy in public may be more problematic.

Both groups of clergy are motivated by a conscientious objection to the association of Nabisco foods with the tobacco industry and the health problems related to it.

The resolution calling for the split is being put forward by the Maryknoll Fathers in New York, together with the Glenmary Home Mission based in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The SEC's decision to allow the resolution, came in response to a request by RJR Nabisco to have it blocked. The news triggered jubilation at the Maryknoll Fathers mission in Ossining, New York.

"It's almost as if we wrote the SEC's ruling outselves and obviously we're very happy," said the Reverend Joseph La Mar.

RJR Nabisco, which claims that pending legal problems related to the tobacco business make an early spin-off unadvisable, has already indicated that it will no longer challenge the brothers' inititiative.

The company has not quite been able to resist taking a shot at them, however.

"The fathers want an excuse to rail against the tobacco business," a spokesman sneered in a statement published by the New York Times yesterday.

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