The Manville trust, the fund for more than 130,000 asbestos victims that has been criticized for spending too much money on legal and professional fees, recently hired the public relations firm of Robinson, Lake, Lerer & Montgomery as an adviser.

After paying the first 20,000 victims of asbestosis and related lung diseases, the trust announced recently that it had so little cash left to pay remaining victims that some would have to wait until 2015 for their payments. Many plaintiffs contracted the diseases in the 1940s and are dying before they can receive their awards.

"If they {trust officials} had done their jobs, they wouldn't need a PR firm," said Richard F. Scruggs, a Mississippi attorney who represents 4,000 shipyard workers along the Gulf Coast. "They're spending victims' money to protect their own self image... . It's ridiculous and reprehensible that they'd spend what little money they have on a public relations firm."

Marianna S. Smith, executive director of the Manville trust, said that the trust has spent about $35,000 since hiring the firm a month and a half ago. That amounts to less than two-thirds of the average asbestos settlement, she said.

Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Jack B. Weinstein, who is presiding over hundreds of asbestos-related cases that involve workers from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, called the cash shortage in the trust a "judicial emergency" and ordered the trust's assets frozen.

Under that order, the trust must stop paying settlements, judgments and legal fees until Sept. 6 while an outside adviser comes up with a plan to restructure the trust. The order allows the trust to continue paying ordinary operating expenses and staff salaries.

Weinstein yesterday declined to comment on whether payments to the high-profile Robinson, Lake public relations firm -- founded by former Reagan campaign press secretary James Lake and former Transportation Department official Linda Robinson -- would be a violation of the order.

However, an attorney involved in the asbestos litigation said that any payment to it probably violates the order. "There will be difficulty in getting it to pass muster," said the attorney, who asked not to be identified. Sources said the Robinson, Lake firm was providing trust officials with behind-the-scenes advice on public relations strategy.

The trust and its officials have come under increasing criticism for paying large settlements in initial asbestos cases, leaving nothing for subsequent claimants. In addition, experts estimate that of the nearly $1 billion the trust has paid out, more than one-third has been spent on attorneys' fees.

Smith of the Manville trust defended the hiring of the public relations firm yesterday, saying it was "absolutely not" a violation of Weinstein's order. She said that the firm, which has offices in Washington and New York, was hired several weeks before Weinstein issued his order on July 14.

"We were just deluged by press calls in May and June," Smith said. "We always saw our job as communicating with lawyers, plaintiffs, our constituency. But we had resisted having an in-house PR department."

The Manville Personal Injury Settlement Trust was formed in 1987 with about $3 billion from Denver-based Manville Corp. to settle claims.