With just days to go before the March 20 primary election, State Rep. Paul Evans (R-O'Fallon) took a big swing at rival Don Weber of Troy claiming he accepted asbestos referral fees from the SimmonsCooper law firm several years ago while on the public payroll.
But Weber, a former circuit judge and state's attorney, called Evans's shots a "desperate, Hail Mary attempt to salvage a campaign that has fallen apart."
On Thursday, Evans issued a statement saying that Weber had taken fees in 2005 and 2006 while he was judge and worked as an assistant Madison County state's attorney.
Weber served as circuit judge, by appointment, from November 2005 through the end of 2006, after Circuit Judge George Moran, Jr. resigned. Weber ran for the circuit seat in 2006, but lost the election to Dave Hylla. He also served as Madison County State's Attorney and as assistant prosecutor.
In next Tuesday's election, Evans, Weber and Charles Meier of Okawville are competing for the Republican nomination to the newly redrawn 108th House District.
Evans was appointed last year to the seat formerly held by State Rep. Ron Stephens of Greenville, who resigned in August.
"At a time when Don Weber is seeking to gain another public office in which he has made asbestos litigation reform central to his campaign, it is critical that the taxpayers of the 108th Legislative District understand the past financial rewards Weber received from asbestos lawsuits while on the public payroll," Evans said in the statement.
Evans stated that Weber received payments from SimmonsCooper (now called the Simmons Law Firm) after Weber referred plaintiff Jack Baierlein to the firm in 2003 for an asbestos related wrongful death lawsuit of Linda Baierlein. Weber would receive a contingency fee in connection with the referral.
Evans also said that Weber presided over a case brought by SimmonsCooper on behalf of David and Julie Meyer in 2005, but did not recuse himself from presiding over David Meyer's claim. Evans said it was wrong for Weber not to recuse himself from a case brought by a firm from which he had received a referral fee.
Weber said the issue involving the referral fee has been publicly known since his campaign for circuit judge in 2006.
"My reaction is, he must be 10 points behind," Weber said.
Regarding the referral, he said that Linda Baierlein was a lifelong friend of his who died a "horrible, miserable death."
"I believe exposure to asbestos can cause mesothelioma in some people," he said. "I believe it did in her case."
He said Linda Baierlein had been a lifelong resident of Madison County, that she contracted her illness locally and that her husband still lives in Madison County.
"A plaintiff who resides in Madison County ought to have a right to access to the courts (here)," he said.
He denounced the current practice of Madison County serving as an "asbestos mecca" for claims from around the country.
Weber said he "didn't know much about asbestos then," until he became an asbestos defense lawyer two years ago.
"I found out what goes on in asbestos," he said.
Evans took aim at Weber's recent comments made to the Record regarding Madison County asbestos reform proposals.
Weber said that local asbestos rules are unfair to defendants.
He told the Record that if elected he would propose legislation that would make the asbestos docket in Madison County "fairer and would enhance the integrity and reputation of such litigation."
Evans said he has doubts.
"I question Don Weber's ability to make a fair and impartial decision about asbestos litigation when he benefited financially in referring cases for plaintiffs," said Evans. "It would be like having the fox guard the hen house."
Evans also said that it was Simmons who ultimately succeeded in replacing Weber as judge in the David Meyer case.
"This matter not only smacks of a lack of judgment by an official of the courts, but also is in potential violation of standards set forth for attorneys and judges by the State of Illinois," Evans said.
"It is clear that in this case, it was the plaintiff's attorney who brought fairness and integrity to the asbestos litigation process, not Don Weber," he said. "How can he expect anyone to believe that he will make the process fairer as a state representative, when he failed to do it as a judge."
But Weber dismissed Evans's claims saying they are "desperate."