Common Cause charged yesterday that the American Trial Lawyers Association gave $238.350 in campaign contributions to 1976 congressional candidates over a two-year period, primarily in an effort to kill the "no-fault" auto insurance bill.
"The history of campaign finance activities by ATLA is linked to federal no-fault legislation. This is another classic example of how campaign funds are used to attempt to influence members of Congress," said Fred Wertheimer, vice president of the public advocacy group.
Lawyers belonging to ATLA handle most auto-accident lawsuits.
Release of the figures, compiled from reports filed by ATLA's Attorney's Congressional Campaign Trust, came as the Senate Commerce Committee prepared to start voting today on the no-fault bill.
In 1974 such legislation passed the Senate, 53 to 42, only to die in the House. In 1976 it was killed by the Senate, 49 to 45.
Under no-fault, persons involved in accidents would be paid by thier own insurance companies for minor physical injury to themselves regardless of who was at fault. They could sue the other party for damages only if injury was relatively severe. Some believe this would save money; others say it would block injured persons from just compensation.
Robert Begam, ATLA past president and current chairman of its national affairs department, said in a phone interview from Phoenix that Common Cause was distorting ATLA's lobbying efforts out of what he speculated might be a desire to foster public financing of elections, or because of covert support for no-fault legislation.
Said Began, "The simple truth is . . . that ATLA isn't only concerned with federal no-fault insurance but with dozens of other fields of legislation, like federal worker compensation, consumer product safety, federal product liability, swine flu legislation and a whole welter of international compacts on aviation . . . The proponents of the bill are big labor, big insurance and big fleet owners. If you added up the campaign contributions of the members of the Committee for Consumers No-Fault, the AFL-CIO, etc., they would probably come to $30 million. Why didn't they do that, add that up?"
According to Common Cause computations through last December, $127.500 from the trial lawyer fund group went to Senate candidates and $107.150 to House candidates; the rest was used in runoffs and special primaries.
The figures indicated that five senators now on the Commerce Committee received campaign money from the ATLA group - Chairman Howard Cannon (D-Nev.), $2,500; Don Riegle (D-Mich.), $10,000; John Melcher (D-Mont.), $2,500, and Robert W. Packwood (R-Ore.), $3,000. Another $5,000 went to Utah Republican Orrin Hatch in his successful campaign to unseat the floor manager of the 1976 bill, Frank Moss.