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Joan Vennochi

Asbestos legal work could taint Elizabeth Warren

Democrat Elizabeth Warren left a big opening when she failed to tell her side of the story of the legal work she did for Travelers Insurance in a case involving asbestos victims. Republican Senator Scott Brown lost no time using that lapse against her.

At a morning press conference following their first debate, Brown called Warren’s claim that she had actually worked for asbestos victims “outrageous.” Describing the Harvard law professor as a “hired gun”, he said Travelers retained her “to get them off the hook for settlements sought by victims of asbestos poisoning.” Warren, he charged, is trying to mislead voters into thinking of her as an advocate for the little guy, when “there is only one person who has taken the side of big corporations against working families and that’s Elizabeth Warren.”

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But David D. McMorris, an attorney whose law firm represents asbestos victims, including those in the Travelers’ case, said Brown is the candidate who is misleading the public. He called the senator’s attack on Warren “completely dishonest”.

McMorris and several union representatives, including Francis Boudrow, the business manager of Asbestos Workers Union Local 6, spoke to the media after Brown’s press conference at his South Boston campaign headquarters. They were there to defend Warren and support her argument that she was helping victims, not hurting them, when she represented Travelers.

“He’s distorting her role,” said McMorris, in a telephone call after Brown’s press conference. “Clearly, he’s doing it on purpose. He’s a lawyer...He’s either a very lazy or inept lawyer, or he’s lying.”

But the case is complicated.

As reported earlier by Globe reporter Noah Bierman, Travelers hired Warren to represent the insurance company in its fight to gain permanent immunity from asbestos-related lawsuits; in exchange for that immunity, the insurance company said it would establish a $500 million trust for current and future victims of asbestos poisoning. Warren succeeded in that mission, successfully arguing Travelers case before the US Supreme Court. She was paid $212,000 by Travelers from 2008 to 2010.

However, after she left the case, a separate court ruled that Travelers did not have to pay out the money and it never has. As one judge saw it, Travelers got “something for nothing.”

McMorris argues that Warren was hired “to defend the integrity of the settlement. She won.” What happened afterwards was out of her hands, he said.

That may be. But it’s now in the hands of an opponent who is making it clear he will use every weapon available to keep his job.

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