By GREG GORDON
June 13, 2005
That's also where they part company.
Keener, the daughter of a World War II veteran, and Vento, the widow of a Minnesota congressman, have lent their voices for more than a year to opposing sides of an all-out lobbying battle over a proposed $140 billion congressional settlement of the nation's asbestos injury suits - a bill now headed to the Senate floor.
"The current system is just not working," Keener declared in a television ad in which she described her family's struggle to recover damages for her father's death in 2001. The ad was partly underwritten by insurers, but its other financiers have yet to be disclosed.
In a rebuttal ad last year financed by trial lawyers, Vento said her husband, the late Minnesota congressman Bruce Vento, "and tens of thousands of others were poisoned by companies that knew the dangers of asbestos" and now want a congressional bailout. Keener's and Vento's roles reflect today's so-called grass-roots lobbying tactics, in which special interests try to operate behind the veneer of obscure nonprofit groups and let everyday Americans do their talking. They also reflect the impassioned debate over a proposal that would dramatically alter the way up to 2 million victims of asbestos are compensated.
Keener has also appeared at an event with President Bush and has testified before the U.S. Senate to help sell the measure, which would create an industry-funded trust fund to disburse compensation ranging from $25,000 to $1.1 million.
In Michigan with Bush last January, Keener described her family's struggle to recover damages after her father's 2001 death from asbestos exposure in the Navy 60 years ago. She said that her mother's suit has gone nowhere and that all but seven of roughly 60 corporate defendants are bankrupt. In fact, three of 59 defendants are bankrupt, and the case is set to go to trial in July in California.
Keener's pitch for the asbestos bill appears to have been effective. She and her husband, Hershel Gober, a former deputy secretary of the U.S. Veterans Administration, joined in creating a coalition that helped mobilize key support for the measure last month from 17 veterans groups. No one will say who financed that effort, either. The backing of Navy veterans, thousands of whom contracted lung diseases from breathing asbestos fibers in shipyards or on board ships, has made it easier for the bill's sponsors to attract crucial Democratic votes.
Longtime Democratic Rep. Bruce Vento died in 2000, apparently because he breathed asbestos while working part-time factory jobs as a young man. Sue Vento heads one of several victims' groups opposing the trust-fund bill on grounds that every victim should have a right to a jury trial.
She acknowledges that her Committee to Protect Mesothelioma Victims has gotten financial help from SimmonsCooper LLC, a southern Illinois plaintiffs' law firm. Also, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America helped underwrite a Vento ad last year.
She also concedes that the $1.1 million in compensation the trust fund would pay each mesothelioma victim is probably more than her late husband's family would recover from a pending wrongful death suit.
But, she says, "It isn't about the money. It's about democracy and the fairness of it. It seems like we're ... using the victims as a prop. It's not the victims who are going to be helped by this. It's the industry."
The central players in the lobbying are, on the one side, asbestos plaintiffs' attorneys, who are at risk of losing their share of jury awards, and on the other side, manufacturers that seek to finally cap mushrooming asbestos liabilities. Insurers were also big supporters, but call the latest version of the bill unacceptable. Labor unions are divided. Businesses argue that action is needed to address a "litigation crisis" that has bankrupted 74 companies. Trial lawyers call it "a public health crisis" brought on by companies that knew of asbestos' dangers but didn't warn workers.
The ads and counter-ads have appeared under the banners of nonprofit groups whose names tend to sound alike or offer no hint of the special interests behind them. The Citizens for Asbestos Reform aired Keener's ad last year, and a new Veterans Asbestos Reform Coalition, recently formed by associates of Keener, ran it again this month. U.S. Action aired Sue Vento's ad.
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