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DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTION

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

"While Beau was here, he was the person considered responsible for bringing the SimmonsCooper work to our firm," said Connor Bifferato. He said the relationship started because "Beau knew Jeff" Cooper. Beau's interest in expanding his firm's portfolio coincided with SimmonsCooper's concern about declining prospects in their home base of Madison County, Ill., which had become such a center for filing tort claims that one business group dubbed it a few years ago "America's No. 1 judicial hellhole."

Bifferato added that he did not think Beau Biden's ability to secure the SimmonsCooper account had anything to do with his being a senator's son. He also said the SimmonsCooper work did not generate any "measurable income" until after Beau left the firm at the end of 2006.

Cooper said his friendship with Beau Biden was one reason he chose Bifferato, Gentilotti & Biden to help file asbestos cases in Delaware. But another was that it was "one of the best firms in the state."

He added that Beau Biden has had no interest in the firm's cases since he moved to the attorney general's office, but "his old firm continues to do a great job on SimmonsCooper cases."

In 2006, the Leahy-Specter legislation reached the Senate floor, and Joe Biden again rose to speak against it.

"The real problem is that there are a lot of people out there suffering from the effects of asbestos. There are not a lot of companies out there with the money to pay all of these claims. There is the concern that some of the very companies we have to go to, to recover from, may very well declare bankruptcy. So I understand the motivation. It is a decent, honorable motivation," he told his colleagues on Feb. 14, 2006.

"But the bottom line is, what we are asking an awful lot of people to do is to give up a right in tort that has existed in common law for hundreds and hundreds of years. . . . The victims are not in on this bill."

When the measure came up for a vote that evening, Biden was among 41 senators who voted against it -- meaning it fell short of the 60 votes needed for passage. It never came up for another vote.

A few months after that bit of Senate drama, the complex deal involving the senator's brother and son moved forward. His brother James -- a now 59-year-old Pennsylvania businessman -- and son Hunter -- 38 and a Yale Law School graduate working as a lawyer and lobbyist in Washington -- sought to acquire a group of hedge funds known as Paradigm. To get the initial capital for the deal, they went to Cooper, who described himself in a brief e-mail exchange with The Times as an admirer of the senator and a longtime "friend of the Biden family." He noted that his wife and Hunter Biden's wife had gone to high school together.

Wade, the campaign spokesman, said Hunter Biden and Cooper met "several years ago and they became good friends."

The Illinois firm, based in the downstate city of East Alton, agreed to provide the initial $2 million of the purchase of the company in exchange for a 10% interest. In an affidavit from a suit involving the Bidens and another partner in the Paradigm deal, Hunter Biden said that he and his uncle "sought and obtained an additional investor, SimmonsCooper," after agreeing to buy a controlling interest in the Paradigm hedge funds. Hunter Biden said that SimmonsCooper agreed to make the initial $330,000 payment for the purchase and to cover other costs.

Hunter Biden said in his affidavit that SimmonsCooper made that payment on May 2, 2006, and that he and his partners used it as a down payment so they could begin managing Paradigm hedge funds while they finalized the purchase. SimmonsCooper sent a second payment of $670,000 a week later, bringing its total investment to $1 million.

According to the affidavit, SimmonsCooper pulled out of the deal after the Bidens said their then-partner, Anthony V. Lotito Jr., had misled them about the value of the hedge funds and about expenses.

Lotito's lawyer denied the allegations, which the Bidens made in an ongoing lawsuit filed by Lotito against them.

The Bidens eventually acquired the hedge fund, and said in court filings that they incurred a $1-million debt to SimmonsCooper for the money they had been advanced.

"Jim and Hunter repaid SimmonsCooper the $1 million they had invested because they believed it was the right thing to do," said Nicholas A. Gravante Jr., the lawyer for the two Bidens.

Like many plaintiffs' firms, SimmonsCooper distributes campaign contributions liberally to influential Democratic lawmakers, most of whom opposed the proposed legislative solution to limit asbestos lawsuits.

"We support a lot of Democrats," said SimmonsCooper partner Michael Angelides. "We generally support candidates who are for consumer and victim rights. . . ."

He described Biden as "a real champion for consumer rights issues."

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chuck.neubauer@latimes.com

tom.hamburger@latimes.com

Times staff writer Noam N. Levey and researchers Janet Lundblad and Ole Jann contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

In the money

Donations to candidate campaign committees between 2001 and 2008 from SimmonsCooper, a firm that deals with asbestos litigation.

Top five

Joe Biden: $196,050

Tom Daschle: 111,600

Richard J. Durbin: 95,535

Barack Obama: 74,900

Harry Reid: 73,400

Others of note

John Edwards: $58,100

John F. Kerry: 22,000

Hillary Rodham Clinton: 15,400

Edward M. Kennedy: 7,000

Source: Center for Responsive Politics

Graphics reporting by Ole Jann

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