WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Asbestos victims and their family members, including the widow of former Minnesota Rep. Bruce Vento, are opposing legislation to settle the nation's mass of asbestos injury suits.

In the latest twist in a Byzantine lobbying battle, groups financed by trial attorneys are encouraging tens of thousands of workers sickened from breathing the fibers to contact their congressmen.

Susan Vento, whose husband died Oct. 10, 2000, of the rare cancer mesothelioma, said she wrote 42 letters last week urging senators, including Minnesota's Mark Dayton and Norm Coleman, to vote "no."

The legislation, she wrote, is "unjust, unfair and cruel."

The bill, narrowly approved in July by the Senate Judiciary Committee, would create an industry-bankrolled trust fund of at least $108 billion and perhaps exceeding $153 billion to compensate sick workers and their families over 25 years. It would set a compensation schedule for a range of asbestos-related illnesses, topped by $1 million payments to mesothelioma victims.

Since clearing the committee, the bill's sponsors have struggled to hold together support from insurers and defendant companies -- the same firms that pushed for a global settlement to curb the seemingly endless flood of claims. Insurers said this week that they would pay no more than $45 billion, as much as $29.5 billion less than their obligations under the bill, instead urging a return to the courts if funds run out. And the AFL-CIO says the compensation is still inadequate for victims.

While Senate leaders from both parties seek a compromise, plaintiffs' attorneys are stepping up their opposition. Several trial lawyers have formed the Committee to Protect Mesothelioma Victims and hired the Washington Group, a lobbying firm co-founded by Luverne, Minn., native Rita Lewis.

Lewis in turn hired Direct Design Communications, a direct-mail operation that has sent 80,000 letters appealing to asbestos victims nationwide to press their senators to vote no, said one of its partners, Michael Tucker. A Minneapolis consulting firm, Grassroots Solutions, co-founded by former Wellstone campaign aide Dan Cramer, is assisting the new committee.

Lewis also asked Susan Vento, a contract negotiator for the statewide teachers union Education Minnesota, to lend her influence.

Vento contends the bill is full of flaws. For example, she called it "unconscionable" that the bill would nullify settlements reached but not yet fully paid, forcing those victims "to start over with the process."

"It's going to cause families to revisit the pain and anxiety of this disease and all that their family members went through," she said.

In addition, she predicted, the startup of the trust fund would bring a surge of hundreds of thousands of claims, creating a bottleneck for victims with just months to live. Courts in many states have put those victims' suits on a fast track.

And, Vento said, even the sickest victims would be forced to again undergo tests to prove they qualify.

"If you're dying from mesothelioma, it's horrible," she said, recalling how her husband underwent similar tests days before he died. "I will never forget that day. He was thoroughly exhausted . . . He was never the type to be claustrophobic, but when you have a lung condition and all of a sudden you have these machines wrapped around you, it can be very difficult."

Gearing for a fight

Jeff Cooper, an Edwardsville, Ill., attorney whose firm is helping bankroll the victims' committee, said some of his mesothelioma clients have spent more than $1 million on medical bills and could get nothing under the current bill. Insurers would be allowed to recover their medical payments after the victims are compensated.

Vento also decried the bill's lack of money for research on mesothelioma, which afflicts about 3,000 people each year and gets little federal research funding.

Vento, whose husband represented St. Paul for 24 years, said she fears that Republican Sen. Coleman will vote for the measure.

Coleman spokesman Tom Steward said the senator "believes that asbestos legislation . . . is the right thing to do" but is waiting to see the final bill.

Dayton spokeswoman Chris Lisi said the Democratic senator has not decided on the bill's merits and doubts it will make progress this year.

Trial lawyers, however, are preparing for a fight.

"We're considering advertising" on the asbestos issue, said Carlton Carl, a spokesman for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. "Most of our members have informed their clients about what's going on, and they're outraged."

Mike Sieben, an attorney with the Hastings law firm of Sieben, Polk, LaVerdiere & Dusich, which handles most Minnesota asbestos injury suits, said the firm sent letters urging more than 100 clients to contact Dayton and Coleman.

Vento said she has no idea whether her family would fare better in pending suits than if it got $1 million under the bill.

Days before her husband, a 12-term Democrat, died at age 60, the Ventos sued more than a dozen companies, alleging he was exposed to asbestos as a young school teacher while working part-time factory jobs. Sieben, who represents the Vento family, said that settlements have been reached with about half of the 16 defendants but that the amounts are confidential.

Echoing her late husband's words, Vento said the litigation and any settlement bill should be less about money than about "changing behavior" for corporations that put workers in danger.

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