How a powerful N.Y. politician (allegedly) exploited asbestos victims

January 22, 2015

It is a tragedy to be diagnosed with mesothelioma, a lung and chest cancer closely associated with exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma is a particularly lethal disease, typically undetected until tumors have spread to vital organs. Most of the 3,000 or so people a year who are diagnosed with mesothelioma don’t even receive treatment other than palliative care for the fearsome symptoms of their cancer.

Taking advantage of mesothelioma patients is unspeakably despicable. Yet that is one of the crimes alleged against the New York Democratic powerbroker Sheldon Silver in a criminal complaint unsealed Thursday. According to the sworn statement of an investigator from the office of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, Silver colluded with a physician who specializes in this rare form of cancer in order to receive referral fees from Weitz & Luxenberg, the products liability firm where Silver has been of counsel since 2002.

The physician, who is unidentified in the complaint but supposedly runs a university-associated mesothelioma center that attracts patients from across the country, would allegedly steer his patients to Silver. Silver then turned the cases over to asbestos lawyers at Weitz & Luxenberg, which paid him millions of dollars for the clients he brought in. Silver’s quid pro quo to the physician was two state grants for $250,000 apiece to the doctor’s research center, allegedly finagled through Silver’s position as speaker of New York’s state assembly.

The politician also supposedly arranged for the doctor to be honored by the state legislature, helped one of his family members get a job and directed $25,000 in state funding to a nonprofit whose board included a different member of the doctor’s family. (According to the complaint, the physician is cooperating with the government and will not be prosecuted for his actions.)

I should note here that Silver is represented by Steven Molo of MoloLamken and Joel Cohen of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan. Molo told my Reuters colleague Nate Raymond that it was “unfortunate that the prosecutors chose to pursue this as a criminal case” and that Silver would “vigorously contest the charges.”

Weitz & Luxenberg, meanwhile, emphasized in a statement Thursday that it wasn’t aware of or involved in Silver’s supposed tit-for-tat scheme with the doctor and has cooperated with the government’s long-running corruption investigation. “There is nothing in this case,” the firm said through a representative, “that calls into question in any way Weitz & Luxenberg’s total commitment to representing its clients according to the highest standards of law and ethics.”

Weitz & Luxenberg, according to the complaint against Silver, actually refused to cave when the doctor said he wouldn’t refer patients to the firm unless Weitz & Luxenberg donated money to his research. But another asbestos firm was apparently not so squeamish. The U.S. attorney’s investigator said in the complaint that beginning in 2010, the doctor received “substantial support” from a foundation associated with that unnamed law firm. That donation, in part, led the doctor to steer his mesothelioma patients to the unnamed law firm, though he also supposedly continued to court Silver with some referrals.

I hope the second asbestos firm’s identity is eventually exposed in the Silver prosecution. If the firm really engaged in a tit-for-tat deal to obtain clients, it sure ought to be. I’m not naive about the stiff competition among plaintiffs’ firms to represent patients with mesothelioma. Meso clients are valuable because they almost always recover money from asbestos defendants – and their lawyers, therefore, almost always receive contingency fees. Plaintiffs’ lawyers can also use the threat of giant jury verdicts for their meso clients to force defendants into group settlements on behalf of clients with less severe injuries.

Law firms specializing in asbestos litigation are well known for running radio and television advertisements and buying Internet sites to attract clients with mesothelioma. If you run a Google search for the word “mesothelioma,” you are more likely to turn up links to plaintiffs’ firms than to medical centers.

Business groups and defendants deplore plaintiffs’ firms that operate websites purporting to be mesothelioma information centers, but buying referrals from a trusted physician is a different and much uglier story. Unfortunately, the complaint against Silver implies that such quid pro quo deals may not be limited to this case. The doctor who referred his patients to Silver supposedly told the U.S. attorney’s office that mesothelioma researchers rely heavily on asbestos law firms for funding because the disease is too rare to attract much grant money. According to the doctor, a nonprofit meso group for which he served as a scientific advisor actively sought donations from law firms that represent asbestos victims.

The Silver complaint does not say that the asbestos nonprofit or doctors affiliated with it conditioned client referrals on donations from plaintiffs’ firms. And there’s nothing inherently wrong, of course, with law firms giving money to causes they support; in fact, it’s laudable to share your profits with groups that help your clients.

If that is the only motive of the asbestos firms that donate to mesothelioma research, they deserve our thanks. If not, shame on them.

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