WSJ pounds asbestos trial bar over Sheldon Silver charges; Link between politicians and lawyers 'ripe for investigation,' paper says

By Ann Maher | Feb 4, 2015


In the aftermath of New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's arrest over an alleged attorney fee kickback scheme, the Wall Street Journal is pounding the asbestos trial bar.

And notably, the paper points to connections the Simmons firm of Alton has to a key figure in the case - Dr. Robert Taub - who led a mesothelioma research center at Columbia University.

Online records show that the Simmons firm in 2010 created the Simmons Mesothelioma Foundation and on May 10 that year sent $3.1 million to Taub's research center.

According to charges filed against Silver by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Taub - identified as "Doctor 1" - allegedly received state funds in exchange for providing Silver with the names of plaintiffs who could be profitable in high-dollar asbestos lawsuits.

Silver, who was employed by the asbestos firm Weitz and Luxenberg, was arrested Jan. 22.

Columnist Kimberly Strassel noted Jan. 29 that the Simmons firm "has shuffled money to the same doctor to obtain its own plaintiffs."

"Indeed, it’s now common for asbestos firms to get claimants this way," she wrote. "And yet when the Silver headlines broke, Weitz & Luxenberg founder Perry Weitz said he was 'shocked' that Mr. Silver was engaged on the law firm’s behalf in a political version of standard industry practice. The firm quickly put the Albany politician on 'leave.'"

Strassel wrote that Weitz & Luxenberg admitted giving Silver "a plum job" and that Silver "looked out for the firm—namely by blocking any Albany bills that might interfere with its business model."

"Weitz & Luxenberg hasn’t just been generous to Albany fixers," Strassel wrote. "Its employees have in the past four years showered $600,000 on federal candidates, 99% of them Democrats. Then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ’s top contributor from 2009 to 2014 was Weitz & Luxenberg."

Strassel goes on to note that Simmons was Reid's second biggest contributor, as well as U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin's (D-Ill.) top contributor, and a "big giver" to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

"And Mr. Reid, like Mr. Silver, has performed—namely by blocking any Washington bills that might interfere with the firm’s business model."

When Reid was Senate majority leader, he derailed House-approved legislation - the FACT Act - designed to make it harder for lawyers to simultaneously make claims against asbestos bankruptcy trusts and in courtrooms.

The FACT Act, however, has recently been reintroduced in the House, in what will be a third attempt at getting the Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency bill passed.

"Republicans this week reintroduced that legislation, and if they were savvy, they’d be all over the Silver story," Strassel wrote. "The GOP has long complained about the outsize influence the plaintiffs’ bar has on Democrats. What it has failed to do is to make that influence and funding an outright political liability.

"It shouldn’t be hard. The left is forever insinuating that corporate America is awash with crooks and thieves, yet you’d be hard-pressed to find a business sector in recent years that has provided more proof of industrywide malfeasance than the tort bar."

The Wall Street Journal also published an editorial Feb. 1, amplifying Strassel's commentary.

Here are some excerpts:

"The recent corruption charges against New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver reveal the rot that has long plagued Albany," the editorial states. "But the story deserves more national attention for exposing the links between politicians and the asbestos-plaintiffs bar.

"As some courts have grown more skeptical about asbestos claims that are often bogus, the trial bar has focused on mesothelioma cases. Mesothelioma is a cancer linked to asbestos and has long been considered a legitimate tort claim. The Silver complaint is a case study in how lawyers, doctors and politicians conspire to recruit mesothelioma victims and pump up court payouts.

"But it’s important to recognize that a contributions-for-patients arrangement isn’t rare. The complaint against Mr. Silver refers to 'law firms' that have contributed to mesothelioma researchers. The complaint also refers to 'the Other Asbestos Firm' whose affiliated foundation donated to Dr. Taub’s center and also received the names of potential plaintiffs. News reports have identified that other firm as the Simmons Law Firm of Illinois and the donation amount as $3.2 million. The Simmons firm has not been charged and the New York Times reports the firm said in a statement that it is proud to fund research at Columbia.

"Media commentary about the Silver case is playing as a familiar morality play about money in politics. But the real problem is a New York state government that protects incumbents with gerrymandered seats and provides enormous and largely unchecked power to bestow political favors. The link between politicians and the asbestos bar is one example that is ripe for further investigation. The Silver case isn’t an aberration."

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