Sen. Joe Biden worked to defeat a bipartisan bill designed to curb asbestos lawsuits at a time his son's law firm was filing them in Delaware and a former aide was lobbying against the measure, according to public records and interviews.
Biden, a longtime ally of trial lawyers who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, opposed legislation that would have replaced thousands of lawsuits with a trust fund for asbestos victims. He proposed a series of amendments in 2003 and 2005 that backers of the bill viewed as "poison pills" designed to kill the bill, said Lawrence Fineran, a lobbyist who supported the measure.
Supporters — including chief sponsors Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. — said the measure would end abusive litigation that had bankrupted dozens of companies. Critics, including Biden, said it would leave some victims without compensation. In February 2006, Biden joined a majority of Democrats, including Sen. Barack Obama, in voting to defeat the bill.
In an e-mail, Biden spokesman David Wade said the senator "consistently opposed the asbestos bill because it was unfair. He thought it was dead wrong that if the trust fund ran out of money for the victims, they couldn't even get their rights back."
There is nothing illegal about a U.S. senator acting in a way that helps campaign contributors or relatives, and Biden has a history of supporting the right to sue in civil court. But the "intersection of interests" among Biden, his son, his ex-aide and his contributors "all steer the senator toward one perspective," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Biden's ties to trial lawyers, some of the country's biggest political givers, will be a test for the Obama campaign, which has promised to free Washington from the grip of special interests, she said. Biden is Obama's vice presidential selection.
The Delaware Democrat had ties to opponents of the asbestos measure at the time he worked against the bill, a USA TODAY review shows:
•His older son, Beau Biden, was a partner in a Wilmington law firm that was filing asbestos lawsuits and seeking to develop a specialty in that area, according to firm partner Connor Bifferato. Beau Biden was not available for comment.
•His former Senate aide, John T. Dorsey, was a lobbyist representing three asbestos-related clients from 2003 to 2005 who opposed the bill. In May, Dorsey became treasurer of Biden's political action committee, records show. Dorsey, a Delaware lawyer, did not respond to telephone and e-mail messages sent Monday and Tuesday.
•Employees at three law firms that specialize in asbestos litigation are among Biden's top 10 all-time contributors, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. Employees at those law firms have given him $411,000 since 1989, according to the center.
Asked if Biden should have disclosed his son was working on asbestos cases, Wade said: "No. Sen. Biden was a well-known opponent of the asbestos bill, and Beau Biden was a prominent attorney who was working on behalf of mesothelioma victims."
Wade added that the contributions and Dorsey's lobbying were irrelevant, because "for 35 years, Sen. Biden has had one and only one position on these issues. He believes that victims have rights to hold accountable those who injure them."
Thirteen Senate Democrats, including Leahy, Evan Bayh and Delaware's Tom Carper, voted for the asbestos bill, which also was backed by DuPont, a major Delaware employer.
In an April Fox News interview, Obama cited his vote for a different civil courts bill, the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005, as evidence he was willing to stand up to trial lawyers.
Biden voted against that bill.