A new bill called the Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency (FACT) Act of 2015 is heading to the U.S. House of Representatives after passing through the House Judiciary Committee in March. On the surface, such a bill perhaps sounds great, but what’s really behind this new legislation?
Advocacy groups are finding big correlations between the votes of House politicians, and the amounts of money that these House politicians have received from big-name donors. Many donors have an interest in blocking asbestos-related legal claims, and the FACT Act is aimed at taking compensation away from, and making the claims process more difficult for, those suffering from mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. This raises obvious questions about the intentions of the lawmakers involved, and the integrity of the political process.
One of the largest contributions to the House committee of 19 Representatives comes from none other than Koch Industries, headed by Charles and David Koch. The Koch brothers gave total contributions of $241,500, making them the second-biggest donor after Honeywell, a company that gave FACT Act proponents a total of $245,000. AT&T, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon were three additional prominent donors, each with contributions of over $150,000, and other companies, including ExxonMobile, General Electric, Boeing, CSX, and Northrop Grumman also offered up large sums of money.
This effort to buy influence is only the latest move in the Kochs’ struggle to ward off mesothelioma and asbestos-related lawsuits related to the company’s Georgia-Pacific subsidiary. Previously, the company tried to argue that its asbestos-containing products contained no carcinogens.
The Real Deal on the FACT Act
The FACT Act has been promoted by some industry giants and other involved parties as something that would increase “transparency” or make claims processing “efficient,” but in reality, it could negatively impact those who are suffering from mesothelioma.
The bill includes tougher disclosure requirements for plaintiffs suffering from asbestos-related diseases, who would have to provide sensitive financial information to be made available to the public. However, the FACT Act offers no similar disclosure requirements for the big companies that are the defendants in asbestos-related cases.
What does this disclosure policy mean? Mesothelioma sufferers and other asbestos-injury victims would need to put some of their financial details into documents that could show up on the web, which could leave them open to identity theft. There’s also the probability that the disclosure rules could make it harder for “asbestos trusts” to manage payments to both mesothelioma victims and sufferers of asbestos-related diseases. These trusts were set up after knowledge of asbestos health risks became public, and have been funded to an estimated $30 Billion.
Additional documentation stipulations, as proposed by the FACT Act, would make trust administrators do more work in order to release trust payouts to recipients. Requiring trust administrators to commit extra time on each payout is a measure that goes against the very principles of the trust. Mesothelioma-victim advocates are concerned that the burdens of certain disclosure measures could actually delay asbestos claims or stop them altogether. Some say it would tie up labor hours in underfunded asbestos trusts. These trusts were created to help provide compensation to victims, not to push paperwork around to satisfy other parties – especially not the defendants who have been found liable in asbestos claims.
Buying Influence: Big Money in Politics
Looking closely at the facts, there’s no denying that certain companies, such as Koch Industries, can translate money into political influence to get their desired results. It’s also no coincidence that so many of the big asbestos defendants – facing millions, or even hundreds of millions, of dollars in asbestos-related claims – are the biggest donors here, and that the backers of the FACT Act, including committee members, each received significant money from these donors.
This bill’s political process demonstrates how politicians can fill their coffers on the backs of America’s military veterans, as well as other working people and retirees who have been exposed to real hazards while doing tough jobs, both in private industry and the U.S. Military. For those concerned about rulings like Citizen’s United, and the flow of money through expedient PACs, the FACT Act is a concrete example of what can happen when moneyed interests are able to effectively purchase political results.
One example is the following, which a number of advocates from Alliance for Justice and the Center for Justice and Democracy wrote in an open letter to the House:
Since at least the 1930’s, asbestos companies and their insurers have been denying responsibility for the millions of deaths and injuries caused by this deadly product…The companies hid the dangers posed by asbestos exposure, lied about what they knew, fought against liability for the harms caused, tried to change the laws that held them responsible, and to this day, they still fight against banning asbestos in the U.S. The asbestos industry is not interested in transparency. This legislation is nothing but another attempt by the industry to avoid responsibility for the grave harms they have caused.
Some of those on the front lines of the battle against asbestos are also speaking out. “Why are America’s richest companies trying to hurt people?” ask mesothelioma victims in a video from the Asbestos Cancer Victim’s Right Campaign, which asks legislators to oppose the FACT Act.
Keeping Legislators Honest
These kinds of relationships, as evidenced by the FACT Act, are examples of how unchecked power leads to morally-questionable results. These transactions suggest an unethical kind of “quid pro quo” that’s done at the expense of deserving injury victims. Without scrutiny, these kinds of transactions could continue to occur throughout every level of the political system. It’s important for citizens to stay informed about how legislation works either for or against various parties, and what its “pedigree” is: how it has been proposed and promoted, and why a politician, an industry leader, or anyone else chooses to support a given bill.