Honeywell International Inc., whose political action committee donates more money than any other corporate PAC, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spends more to lobby Congress than anyone else, saw long-sought legislation on asbestos claims advance in Congress today.
The legislation, H.R. 982, would impose new disclosure requirements on trusts set up to pay victims of asbestos-related illnesses. The House passed the bill 221-199.
Proponents say the new reports will cut down on fraud by allowing companies such as Honeywell to easily discover if a person suing them also collected damages from a trust for the same illness; opponents argue that the goal is to let companies delay payments to those dying of mesothelioma and other cancers.
Among the voices in the debate are two titans in the political-giving world: the trial lawyers, a major source of funding for Democratic candidates, and Koch Industries Inc., the privately held company owned by billionaire brothers who support Tea Party-related political causes.
Wichita, Kansas-based Koch Industries Inc. has a subsidiary, Georgia-Pacific LLC, that has paid out millions of dollars in asbestos claims and faces other lawsuits, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
A spokesman for Koch Industries, Rob Tappan, declined to comment on the legislation.
When Honeywell and AlliedSignal merged in 1999, the combined company inherited Allied’s liability to lawsuits since it had made products with asbestos, especially brakes by the Bendix Corp.
The company has paid out $503 million in asbestos-related claims from 2010 to 2012, according to its Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
Honeywell’s view of the House legislation is that it “promotes fairness and transparency in the tort system, while continuing to protect the privacy of plaintiffs,” Rob Ferris, a spokesman for Morris Township, New Jersey-based company, said in a statement.
“It gives Congress the opportunity to ensure that asbestos bankruptcy trust assets are preserved for the benefit of actual asbestos victims,” Ferris said. “Our political action committee supports those who support the policies that are most important to our business and that are good for the economic growth of the country.”
Honeywell’s PAC gave out more campaign money than any other corporate committee in both 2010 and 2012, and was No. 1 again this year, contributing $1.5 million from Jan. 1 to June 30, according to Federal Election Commission data.
The bill, introduced by Texas Republican Blake Farenthold, would require the 60 trusts set up to handle asbestos lawsuits against bankrupt companies to file quarterly reports detailing who they’ve paid claims to and why.
The reports would be public information and provide fodder to the lawyers handling cases against companies that haven’t filed for bankruptcy.
Bill supporters said that some lawyers collect payments from trusts, and then sue another corporation on behalf of the same victims without disclosing the earlier settlement.
“Those people who have valid claims are going to receive compensation the same way they do now,” said Lisa Rickard, president of the Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform. “What the plaintiffs’ lawyers are doing is running claims on behalf of claimants through trusts and then in court against solvent employers.”
The National Association of Manufacturers told lawmakers it will count the bill as one of the “key votes” on which the group will judge lawmakers this year.
The Chamber of Commerce was running ads on the asbestos bill today in print publications that target Congress, and its chief lobbyist, Bruce Josten, sent a letter yesterday to lawmakers saying that the Chamber would consider counting their vote on the bill on its congressional scorecard.
The chamber is a giant in the lobbying world. Including its legal reform institute and other affiliates, the Chamber spent $52 million on lobbying during the first nine months of 2013, more than anyone else, according to the according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“The bill’s mandatory reporting and disclosure requirements would threaten asbestos victims’ privacy when they seek payment for injuries from an asbestos bankruptcy trust,” the White House said in a statement of administration policy opposing the bill.
“We don’t think asbestos victims should have to go through those steps,” said Julia Duncan, director of federal programs for the American Association for Justice, the Washington-based trade group for trial lawyers. “This is part of a decades-long campaign to do whatever it can to deny accountability to the victims that they poisoned.”
Other opponents of the bill include a coalition of consumer groups and relatives of those injured by exposure to asbestos, including Susan Vento, widow of former Minnesota Democratic Representative Bruce Vento, who died in 2000 from cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.
When the bill went through the House Judiciary Committee, it advanced with no votes from Democrats.
–Editors: Brian Nutting, Katherine Rizzo