Thursday, January 8, 2009
I got this e-mail yesterday:
William G. Childs,
I am Jesse Herman, the Awareness Coordinator at the Mesothelioma Cancer Center (www.asbestos.com). Lately I have been reaching out to attorney bloggers and site administrators in efforts to getting some of our information published. Your website seems like a good fit.
As you may know, homes built before 1980 likely have asbestos insulation in them. When homeowners remodel, they may expose themselves to asbestos, which could lead to the deadly cancer called mesothelioma. There are many environmentally safe and healthy ways to insulate your home and this is among the topics we like to discuss. Additionally, there are laws in place to help consumers and victims.
If this sort of content is something you think is helpful, I will attach an article for your site and you can let me know if it qualifies. Hopefully we can work together to help each other out.
Thank you for all your help,
Mesothelioma Cancer Center
(The only thing I have taken out is the sender's e-mail address.)
Sounds helpful, no? And a look at the about page at Asbestos.com makes it sound good too: "Since 1995, Asbestos.com has been recognized as the web's leading resource for up-to-date information regarding asbestos exposure and resulting illnesses." How nice! And look, the New York Times quoted one of their staff and referred to the site as simply "an asbestos information web site."
As is my (admittedly geeky) wont, I thought I'd look around a bit.
Um...wait. The domain has indeed been registered since 1995. But let's look through the wayback machine a bit. At least in 2003 Archive.org reveals a blog with indie music discussion and stuff about design (I think associated with this non-law firm), which is a little odd, and as of 2006 it was just a domain parking site. So maybe not so much with the "since 1995" thing.
But as of early 2007, Asbestos.com was plainly a site just for the Peterson firm (another example here, and a 2006 example, not naming a particular firm, is here). Archive.org doesn't have anything after early 2007, so I don't know when it switched over to the current content. That said, the controlling entity (as noted below) was formed in 2007, so that's not the end of the question.
So let's look a little further into the ownership of Asbestos.com and that statement that it's a "completely separate entity" from the law firm. The domain registration reflects that it's owned by the "Asbestos & Mesothelioma Awareness Group" with an address different from that of the Peterson Law Firm. Interesting, though, that the address (3208 East Colonial Dr. in Orlando) is that of a UPS Store that includes mailbox services, and is three miles from the Peterson firm's address.
Interesting. Maybe we should look more at the Asbestos & Mesothelioma Awareness Group, the entity that at least owns the Asbestos.com domain. SunBiz.org, the Florida Secretary of State's helpful but ridiculously slow site, shows an entity by that name with managers Carl H. Peterson IV and Raymond Apelado. Peterson? Founding partner of the Peterson law firm. Apelado owns over 50 domains, including Truck-Accident.us, and appears to own Apelado Enterprises (an "internet marketing" company). And the Asbestos & Mesothelioma Awareness Group's principal place of business according to its most recent annual report? That'd be 20 N. Orange Ave., Suite 400, which is the address of none other than the Peterson law firm. The Asbestos & Mesothelioma Awareness Group appears to have been formed in 2007.
What about that "Mesothelioma Cancer Center" referenced on the site and in the initial e-mail? The SunBiz.org has no results for it. CorporationWiki does not bring back any results for it either. A University of Florida site refers to an entity with that name at MAACenter.org, which is -- yes indeed -- another law firm site, but not, seemingly, related to the Peterson Law Firm or Asbestos.com. I think that the name is just a coincidence, and that the "Mesothelioma Cancer Center" doesn't exist as a separate entity, but I'm not sure.
(As an aside: how interesting to have a public university's website listing of "Advocacy and Support Groups" link to a private law firm's site, but that is, perhaps, for another day.)
Does any of it matter? I think so: A casual reader (a) would probably think the site is entirely independent, perhaps just getting funding from a law firm, but would not understand that the site is both for-profit and part of an LLC with a managing partner from that law firm; and (b) would probably think that any referrals to lawyers would be done to a range of firms across the country, when I would bet that a substantial majority go to the Peterson Law Firm (which may well refer out their cases; no idea if they actually do litigation or if they just do referrals). The fact that the NYT cited it without noting the affiliation seems to suggest that the affiliation is not all that obvious.
Put more briefly: I think it's a stretch, at best, to call these entities "completely separate."
The posts seem factual and potentially helpful, I should note -- I'm not criticizing the content. My concerns are about how clear it would be to information seekers that the information is coming from an entity that is clearly very closely connected to a for-profit law firm.
Back to grading.
Update: A reader points me to this very interesting discussion of whether to include a link to Asbestos.com in the Wikipedia entry for mesothelioma. (Note: See update 3 below.) Someone there did some of the same research I did, though not including all of the corporate control stuff or the UPS store. He also notes this Parloff piece from last spring on a similar site.
Update 2: Welcome, visitors from http://asbestos.petersonfirm.com/cp/?page=../shared/edit I observe in our stats. Also, be sure to read the comments below and the discussion of a similar investigation done by the guy at Samadhisoft.com.
Update 3: One "elkyyy" removed the Wikipedia discussion of Asbestos.com's efforts to be included in the Wikipedia entry; happily, it is archived here. Hey, that's interesting: Elkyyy has attempted multiple times to post links to asbestos.com, and those efforts have been criticized. And s/he's tried to hide those discussions multiple times. (Note: the Talk page about asbestos.com has been restored by an editor who noted that its deletion was "unexplained.")
Update 4: As I noted in a separate post, Eric Turkewitz received some comment spam on behalf of Simmons Cooper. Not long after he posted his concerns, that firm contacted him to apologize and assure him that it would stop. As noted above, people from the Peterson Firm have visited this blog, but, rather than act along the lines of the people at Simmons Cooper, they've stayed silent, and someone, from either Asbestos.com or their firm, has attempted to scrub the Wikipedia talk page.
Update 5: Gene Apelado, the co-owner of Asbestos.com, called me today. In brief, I think it is fair to say that he agreed with some of my criticisms above. He stated that some of it was a combination of bad timing and other factors rather than an attempt to disguise the site's association with the Peterson Firm. He did not identify any errors in my post. He stated that the group will be making some changes to the site and its disclosures in an attempt to become more transparent and that he would notify me when those changes are made.