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Biden family ties pose questions

The senator's brother and sons are linked with a law firm that has benefited from his congressional votes.

August 28, 2008|Chuck Neubauer and Tom Hamburger | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — When Joe Biden's brother and son wanted to buy a hedge fund company two years ago, they turned for financing to a law firm that had lobbied the Delaware senator's office on an important piece of business in Congress -- and in fact had recently benefited from his vote. The firm promised James and Hunter Biden that it would invest $2 million, and quickly delivered half of it.

That arrangement eventually fell through, and the firm's money was returned. But the investment highlighted the close ties between the Biden family and SimmonsCooper, an Illinois law firm that specializes in representing asbestos victims -- a multimillion-dollar line of business that was under threat in Congress.

In addition to providing financing for the hedge fund deal, SimmonsCooper picked the law firm of another of Biden's sons, Beau, to work with it on dozens of asbestos cases in Delaware. "It was only natural that we worked with my friend Beau Biden and his firm," said Jeffrey Cooper, former managing partner of SimmonsCooper.

And SimmonsCooper employees have donated about $200,000 to Biden's campaign efforts since 2001, making the firm his No. 1 donor. All told, SimmonsCooper employees provided much more money to Biden than to any other senator during that period, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.

His family's financial dealings could be troublesome for Biden, who Wednesday night became part of a Democratic presidential ticket that has vowed to reform Washington's traditional money culture.

A spokesman for the senator said that all the SimmonsCooper business deals with his sons and brother were above board, involved no special favors and were arranged without the senator's knowledge. Biden, one of the Senate's leading advocates for trial lawyers and the right of victims to sue in court, has long taken a skeptical view of efforts by the asbestos and insurance industries to get asbestos-related lawsuits out of the courts by creating a trust fund to handle billions of dollars in claims. SimmonsCooper has spent $6.4 million since 2002 lobbying Washington, according to records on CQ MoneyLine, much of it directed at opposing the trust fund bill.

David Wade, Biden's spokesman, noted that the $1-million investment in the hedge fund venture was made after Senate action on asbestos reform had been completed in 2006 and that the Bidens fully repaid the law firm the money. Biden's opposition to the asbestos bill "was well established" long before his sons became involved with the asbestos litigation firm, Wade said.

SimmonsCooper officials said any suggestion of a connection between business deals with Biden's family and official Senate actions was "ludicrous."

What's clear is that SimmonsCooper's interests in Washington were clearly aligned with Biden's philosophical views, and his position on the Judiciary Committee was enormously important to such a firm.

SimmonsCooper is one of the nation's best-known and most successful asbestos litigation firms. Its says it has obtained more than $1 billion for clients, many of whom suffered from mesothelioma, a deadly lung disease that results from contact with asbestos, a once commonly used fire retardant and insulation material.

Biden and others -- including many congressional Democrats, trial attorneys, victims groups and organized labor -- have argued that any trust fund must be large enough to compensate cancer victims. And in 2003, when then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) sponsored legislation to create a trust fund, Biden attached an amendment that would have allowed plaintiffs to return to court if the fund ran out of money.

The amendment was fiercely opposed by industry groups and Republican lawmakers. When Hatch's bill collapsed, those supporters pledged to continue to work to create the trust fund. The following year, SimmonsCooper began contributing heavily to Biden, providing $45,500 to the senator.

In 2005, when asbestos legislation was revived by Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), Biden again pushed for a guarantee that plaintiffs could return to court if there was insufficient money in the fund. The bill stalled.

It was during this period that the first financial connections to the Biden family emerged.

SimmonsCooper began filing asbestos cases in Delaware in 2005 using, as its local counsel, the law firm where Biden's son Beau worked.

Beau, 39, a former federal prosecutor, had just joined the firm -- which became Bifferato, Gentilotti & Biden -- and was looking to do more complex litigation work. Beau Biden, who is now the attorney general of Delaware and a captain in a National Guard unit heading to Iraq, did not respond to requests for comment. But a partner in his former firm credited the senator's son with securing the SimmonsCooper business.

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