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Seeking to Heal War's Fiscal Wounds

Vietnamese who put their trust in foreign banks during war sue to get life savings back. Statute of limitations may block the effort.

August 09, 2003|Mai Tran | Times Staff Writer

More than a generation ago when they still lived in Saigon, Thuong Van Nguyen and his wife steadily deposited their earnings at two banks they believed could be trusted, even with their country on the brink of collapse.

But when they went to withdraw their retirement savings days before the fall of Saigon in 1975, the bank and their life's savings, $4,500, no longer existed.

"I put my money in large, notable foreign banks because I thought they were more trustworthy," said Nguyen, 79, an ex-South Vietnamese Army colonel who now lives in Anaheim. "I thought my money was safe and secure."

Nguyen is among nearly two dozen depositors in Los Angeles and Orange counties who filed suit in April against five banks, including Chase Manhattan Bank and First National City Bank, to get back their money -- and the interest it would have earned over the last 28 years.

The fate of the case, however, is clouded because of the statute of limitations requires such claims be filed within six years.

Assemblyman Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) met with some of the depositors at a Little Saigon restaurant Friday and announced that he will carry legislation on behalf of Vietnamese immigrants who lost their investment in financial institutions during the final days of the South Vietnamese regime. The bill, which Correa said he intends to introduce Aug. 18, would eliminate the statute of limitations for such claims.

"My bill is very simple but very important," Correa said. "People have written the government and banks asking for their money back, but they're blocked by the statute of limitations."

Federico Sayre, a Santa Ana attorney representing the plaintiffs, said the banks are responsible for the branches they once maintained in Vietnam.

"The banks are using the fall of Saigon as an excuse," Sayre said. "It's the same thing if I lend you money, regardless what you do with it, you still have to pay me back."

Bank officials could not be reached for comment Friday but have argued that their legal obligation was wiped out when the new government took over the banks and their assets.

Banking records, they said, were never recovered. In addition, the statute of limitations has passed.

Many of the plaintiffs said they didn't take action sooner because their claims were modest and that they had more immediate concerns after the war: the loss of homes and relatives, relocation camps and learning to live in a new country.

Some said that when they arrived in the United States they believed it would be disrespectful to badger U.S. financial institutions for their money, a position they only recently changed.

Alleging fraud and breach of contract among other things, the suit contends the banks attracted customers to their Saigon branches during the war by pledging to honor accounts, no matter what happened. Instead, plaintiffs said the banks closed their doors without warning before the country fell to the communists.

Worried depositors were turned away when they inquired about their accounts in the weeks before and after the fall of Saigon.

Rose Fernandez, 53, of Corona said she was shocked when she went to a Chase Manhattan branch in Los Angeles and was told she couldn't get her money.

"I don't think it's fair for banks to take my money for 28 years while I came over here without any money, try to raise four children and put my husband through school," said Fernandez, who fled three months before the fall of Saigon with her husband, a sergeant in the U.S. Air Force.

She had a certificate of deposit for about $2,500. The interest rate was 24%, she said. She estimates that she is owed more than $500,000 today.

"I tried to hire a lawyer but I couldn't afford a lawyer when I first got here so I just let it go," Fernandez said.

Nguyen said he repeatedly asked for his money, even after he immigrated to the United States in 1991 with his wife and three of his four children.

At the conference on Friday, he clutched an old plastic bag containing the remnant's of what had been his life's saving: a small blue bank book from Chase Manhattan Bank, another from the National Bank of Paris and a letter from Chase Manhattan saying that he wouldn't get his money back because "the Saigon Branch was confiscated in 1975 by the new government of Vietnam." The note explained that the financial institution no longer does business in Vietnam.

"This is mine and my family's money," Nguyen said. "I want it back so I can help my children because I am old now and I won't live long enough to enjoy it."

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