A Global Asbestos Battle Touches Yale

"I have seen Yale's exceptional work on asbestos-related disease firsthand, as many of my firm's local clients have been treated at the [Yale Occupational and Environmental Medicine] Clinic over the course of the past 30+ years and several of Yale's excellent doctors have testified as expert witnesses on behalf of asbestos victims," Meisenkothen wrote in the petition.

Revoking the degree "would certainly be in keeping with Yale's long and valued tradition of helping asbestos victims," wrote Meisenkothen, of Early, Lucarelli, Sweeney & Meisenkothen LLC, a firm specializing in asbestos work.

The petition lists 71 scientists, physicians, environment experts and authors from around the world in support, and includes the largest U.S. asbestos victims group. It was mailed and emailed to the 18 trustees of the Yale Corporation, including Yale President Peter Salovey and Connecticut's top two elected officials, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, who are ex-officio members.

Aside from revoking the degree, the petition asks Yale for a meeting with the trustees this fall, records of the honorary degree deliberations, and a list of Schmidheiny's donations to the university. Meisenkothen, who is working on the petition free of charge, said he has received no responses except from former Yale President Richard Levin, to say he's no longer president.

Supporters of the victims' families suspect that Schmidheiny curried favor with Yale with large donations. But Conroy, the Yale spokesman, said "there are no records of any substantial gifts to Yale" by Schmidheiny or by charities that Schmidheiny controls.

Yale has never revoked an honorary degree, and it is rare for any university to do so. Conroy, in the statement, said a Yale committee nominating Schmidheiny for the degree in 1996 took into account that he "dismantled a decades-old family asbestos processing concern."

Sean McKaughan, president of Schmidheiny's Avina Foundation, was adamant that Yale not be swayed by the Italian court case.

"I am unfamiliar with Yale's review policy, but the Italian justice system is quickly losing credibility internationally, and I am sure they are aware of that," he said. "An objective look at the evidence and the proceedings leaves little doubt that the trial has been fundamentally flawed."

An attack on the Italian justice system by Schmidheiny's supporters is expected, especially considering the judge's seemingly irresponsible comparison with the Nazis.

The legal arguments will play out for years, as the highest court in Italy considers the case, and as authorities in Brazil prepare a similar case, according to several sources. But separately, especially if Schmidheiny is found guilty after the last Italian appeal, Yale has the means, the motivation and the moral standing to conduct its own investigation on behalf of the victims, on behalf of its own reputation and on behalf of Schmidheiny.

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