WASHINGTON — A letter from the California chapters of six veterans groups landed on the desks of House leaders this week, swirling into the center of a fierce lobbying fight over the fate of sailors and others sickened by asbestos.
The veterans wrote to support a bill making the medical histories of people poisoned by asbestos available to industry defense lawyers. The letter arrived at a key moment just before an expected House vote Friday.
It was starkly at odds with 16 veterans groups whose national leadership came out against the legislation Thursday. They say the bill would allow businesses to delay lawsuits of sick veterans. It also would dump the sensitive personal information – including partial Social Security numbers – of hundreds of thousands of veterans and other asbestos victims onto the Internet.
Interviews and emails obtained by Stars and Stripes show the California letter was based on supplied industry talking points and written without the knowledge of local commanders. It was signed by a Sacramento lobbyist for the state-level offices of Vietnam Veterans of America, Military Officers Association of America, American Legion and others.
“This thing smells really bad,” said Rick Weidman, executive director of policy and government affairs for Vietnam Veterans of America.
The VVA quickly pulled its name from the letter, and its California leadership apologized.
On Thursday, it and 15 other national veterans groups including MOAA wrote House leaders another letter of strong opposition to the bill.
“We have continuously expressed our united opposition to this legislation … It is extremely disappointing that even with our combined opposition H.R. 1927 stands poised to be voted on the House floor later this week,” according to the letter.
The legislative stakes are high. The asbestos bill, sponsored by Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, would be a big win for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and business interests waging legal battles with veterans and others over compensation for conditions such as asbestosis and lung cancer.
The House bill requires asbestos trusts, which were set up to compensate millions of victims, to turn over sensitive, personal claim data to defense attorneys and courts, which would make the records publicly available online.
Farenthold said earlier this week that veteran fears of identity theft were a “non-issue” and opponents were being misleading about the bill providing an advantage to industry defense lawyers.
“That is them looking for things that can be twisted that aren’t in it,” he said.
Farenthold and chamber officials contend veteran records made available to defense attorneys will root out fraud that is draining 60 victim trusts set up across the country. The Government Accountability Office found that releasing the information “may decrease the asbestos-related litigation burden” on companies facing separate lawsuits unrelated to the trusts.
The bill’s fate in the House could depend partly on veteran support, including the California letter.
It was written by Pete Conaty, a lobbyist in Sacramento and retired Army officer, who sent an email to the local veteran groups in December about the bill.
“Sorry to bother you during the holiday season, but I have a request from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for support on federal legislation from state-level organizations,” Conaty wrote in the email.
The request for support of the bill also included documents warning that fraud is threatening the trusts. An attached file entitled “Talking points” was drafted by the chamber.
Conaty told Stars and Stripes that he wrote the letter and representatives of other veterans groups supported it because they were concerned about unscrupulous lawyers “double-dipping” into asbestos compensation funds.
“All positions were approved by the legislative chairs of the organizations listed on the letter,” he wrote in an email. “The commanders were not involved in the decision.”
The prevalence of fraud and whether asbestos trusts are running out of money for veterans remains unclear. The trust claims made by sailors and others with asbestos diseases are now widely considered confidential and out of the reach of courts and the public.
The GAO recently found the potential for fraud exists because of the way the various trusts are managed and anecdotal evidence of wrongdoing has been revealed in court cases and media investigations.
“Defense attorneys say these numerous examples are just the tip of the iceberg,” Joan Gartlan, a spokeswoman for chamber’s lobbying group Institute for Legal Reform, wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes.
Meanwhile, a study this year by a Washington, D.C., economic consulting firm, which was supplied by the ILR, found 23 trusts are paying victims less than in 2008, while nine are paying more. The GAO reported in 2011 that trusts had paid out $17.5 billion of the $37 billion they contained – less than half of the money originally set aside for victims.
Many of the asbestos-poisoning victims are veterans, especially sailors who worked on Navy ships up until the 1980s, when the federal government started regulating the flame-retardant building material. New cases are still emerging because asbestos exposure can cause diseases decades later.
Weidman said the House bill with neither protect those veterans nor prevent fraud.
“It is nothing but a way for the asbestos companies to attack those dying as a result of exposure to asbestos, and their families,” he wrote in an email.