One of the toughest charges Senator Scott Brown leveled against Elizabeth Warren in Thursday’s debate targeted her work for Travelers Insurance in a case involving asbestos victims. Brown said Warren, who has built her reputation as a consumer advocate, helped a major insurance company deny payment to asbestos-poisoning victims.
Brown’s facts were largely true, but the impression he left was somewhat misleading.
The debate included several other stretched claims, especially from Brown, but there appeared to be no outright falsehoods.
The asbestos charge figured most prominently.
Was Warren paid to help deny compensation?
The Globe printed an extensive examination of the complicated case in May. Here is an important conclusion, on a very murky subject, that the article reached:
“It is clear that Warren received a substantial amount of money to help the company win immunity from all future [asbestos-related] lawsuits, with the expectation that the company would have to pay the [$500 million] settlement. But Warren’s work on the case may also have helped Travelers indirectly lay the groundwork for its current position, a position Warren and several other lawyers involved on both sides of the case say they did not foresee: where Travelers has immunity from most suits without having to pay the settlement.”
The Globe reported that Warren was paid $212,000 by Travelers from 2008 to 2010, according to her government disclosure forms, which she was required to fill out when she worked in Congress and the Obama administration and when she declared as a Senate candidate.
It is also true that a $500 million trust fund established to pay plaintiffs in asbestos cases has not been paid out because of a court order that Travelers won after Warren’s work on the case ended, following a series of legal twists and turns. It is also true that Warren, a top bankruptcy specialist at Harvard Law School, helped Travelers win a Supreme Court case that gave the company immunity from most asbestos lawsuits.
In the words of one judge, Travelers received “something for nothing” because it got that immunity, yet it no longer has to pay out the trust.
But at the time Warren worked for Travelers on the Supreme Court case, most asbestos victims and their attorneys were actually on her side of the issue. She was fighting, she says, to unlock the $500 million trust, which Travelers said at the time it was willing to pay out in order to gain immunity and settle all the outstanding claims.
Warren has also said that her work was intended to preserve an important principle in bankruptcy law that would encourage bankrupt companies to leave money available to future victims of large-scale corporate malfeasance. Without the promise of immunity from future lawsuits, these companies have no incentive to establish such trusts, she argues.
Regardless of her motives however, the case has turned out disastrous for the victims, leaving room for Brown and others to argue that she should have been more suspicious of Travelers’ motives. Brown did not mention that he has also benefited from Travelers, albeit in a smaller way than Warren. His campaign received $9,000 from the company’s political action committee over the last two years.
Would Warren raise taxes by $3.4 trillion?
Brown repeatedly accused Warren of proposing $3.4 trillion in new taxes over the next decade, a charge that was also central to a speech Brown gave in Randolph last month. Warren said Thursday night that “these are made up numbers.”
Warren indeed favors a number of tax increases, particularly those directed at the wealthy, but not all the taxes on a list released last month by the Brown campaign are currently supported by Warren.
Warren, in public comments, has said she wants to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire for those who earn more than $250,000 a year, repeal subsidies for oil companies, and increase the estate tax, among other changes that would raise taxes. Those increases alone would amount to about $1 trillion in new taxes over the next decade.
Warren has denied supporting other taxes cited by Brown, including a $1 trillion increase in Social Security taxes over the next decade. Brown cites a comment Warren made in November 2011, that increasing Social Security taxes would stabilize the program. Brown’s campaign said such an increase would add another $1 trillion over the next decade. Warren’s campaign later argued that she was merely offering a hypothetical proposal and does not back higher Social Security taxes. Warren has further said she believes in modest adjustments to preserve Social Security, but has refused to detail them.
Brown has also accused Warren of supporting what he calculates to be an annual $88.5 billion “war tax.” The Associated Press reported in August that Brown came to that conclusion based on Warren’s prior comments that the nation should not go to war on a “credit card.” Warren has said she does not support such a tax, which Brown calculated using the 2013 fiscal year budget.
Does Kennedy agree with Brown on contraception?
Brown defended himself against a charge by Warren that he is hostile to women’s health by invoking the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who held the Senate seat for 46 years.
“You should stop scaring women, professor,” Brown said. “I have the same position as Senator Kennedy in providing a conscience exemption that allows, Catholics in particular, churches, hospitals, health care facilities that practice faith to have that ability to not provide certain care and coverage.”
Brown and Warren fought over this issue in February, when Brown cosponsored a measure to allow employers to deny health coverage for drugs or procedures they find morally objectionable.
Brown based his claim on a letter Kennedy wrote to Pope Benedict XVI in 2009, shortly before his death. In it, Kennedy said, “I believe in a conscience protection for Catholics in the health field.’’
Kennedy did not define what that language meant; his family and former staff members have argued strenuously that he favored full access to contraception.
Kennedy also sponsored a 1997 patients’ rights bill that required employers or insurers to advise patients of “coverage limitations on providing particular medical services . . . based on religious or moral convictions of the issuer.”
Again, Kennedy aides say the measure was a transparency issue, because HMOs were under fire at the time for preventing doctors from discussing coverage limitations.
On the other hand, Kennedy sponsored bills in the 1990s and 2000s that would have required all employers who offer prescription drug coverage to include contraception coverage. And his own words, in a 2001 hearing, suggest a further commitment.
“Contraceptive insurance coverage is essential for women’s health,’’ Kennedy said.Noah Bierman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow him on Twitter