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Holocaust Insurance Claim Deadline Gets Pushed Back

Dispute: International commission gives families eight more months. Its chairman remains frustrated.

January 27, 2002|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

The chairman of an international commission created to resolve Holocaust-era insurance disputes has extended its deadline for submitting claims until the end of September, amid continuing tumult about whether the group can fulfill its mandate.

Lawrence S. Eagleburger, the former secretary of State who heads the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, took the action late last week after stormy meetings in Washington at which he resigned in frustration and then agreed to continue serving.

Eagleburger told commission members Thursday that he was pushing back the deadline eight months, from Jan. 31 until Sept. 30. "The deadline must be extended in order to allow adequate time to collect lists [of insurance policyholders] from the companies, process them through Yad Vashem [the Holocaust center in Jerusalem] and publish the names on our Web site with adequate time for the public to review the lists."

Extending the deadline "creates the possibility that thousands more valid claims will be honored," said Daniel Kadden of Seattle, a consultant to a survivors' organization who attended the Washington meeting.

Insurance companies have been at odds with the commission, Jewish organizations and U.S. regulators for months over releasing information on policies sold from 1920 to 1945. The companies say there are vastly fewer valid claims than survivor advocates believe and that producing the lists would be burdensome and, in some instances, would violate European privacy laws.

Advocates of Holocaust survivors and their heirs maintain that the insurance companies are attempting to hide the true magnitude of unpaid claims.

Disclosure of the policyholder lists is the key to a fair process because nearly all Holocaust victims lost their records when they were taken to the Nazi death camps, said Nat Shapo, director of the Illinois Department of Insurance and chairman of the Holocaust Task Force of the National Assn. of Insurance Commissioners. In addition, the Nazis did not issue death certificates at the camps. Consequently, hardly any of the survivors or heirs have proper paperwork for their claims, making them dependent on insurance companies to search their files and make them public.

So far, the international commission has run up more than $40 million in expenses, while the five European insurance companies that are members of the commission have made only 1,000 offers of compensation, according to commission records. Victims' families have accepted 275 of those, saying many offers were unjustly low.

Extending the deadline was the first move made by Eagleburger after he obtained a written agreement from five insurers that gives him "unfettered authority" to resolve thorny issues that have beset the commission.

The companies signed the letter Wednesday, about 24 hours after Eagleburger stormed out of a commission meeting at the Westin Fairfax Hotel. "Find yourself another chairman," the veteran diplomat declared to attendees from Israel, the insurance companies, Jewish organizations and U.S. regulators, according to people who were present.

But over the next two days, after numerous meetings in his hotel suite, Eagleburger was persuaded to keep the job, which pays $350,000 a year, and was given the greater authority.

Eagleburger has criticized the insurance companies for failing to honor commitments and has expressed frustration at the degree of skepticism that survivor advocates and members of Congress have expressed about the commission, which was chartered under Swiss statutes and whose operations are not subject to U.S. disclosure laws.

Eagleburger, 71, declined to return calls. And despite his decision to stay on, he remains "very frustrated with things," said his aide, Dale Franklin.

"The frustration does not go away with one agreement. We hope the companies will abide by the decision" to give Eagleburger more authority, Franklin said. "Everyone agrees we have not paid enough claims."

The move to extend the deadline was praised by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who severely criticized the commission's performance at a congressional hearing in November and chastised Eagleburger for refusing to provide information on certain matters.

"I am cautiously optimistic," Waxman said Friday night. "This is going to be the last chance to fulfill the long-standing commitment to victims of the Holocaust who have insurance coverage."

Eagleburger's move also was lauded by insurance regulator Shapo. However, he said that extending the deadline would be meaningless unless the insurance companies cooperate.

"This is not a pretty picture," Shapo said, referring to the long-running stalemate on how to resolve the insurance claims. The commission "is dangerously close to becoming a frivolous exercise," he said, emphasizing that important issues remain unresolved. Among them are the publication of policyholder lists and the companies' attempt to recoup about $30 million that they gave the commission for operating expenses.

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