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Bank Has Change of Heart on War Claims

March 12, 2003|Thomas S. Mulligan | Times Staff Writer

Wells Fargo & Co. reversed itself Tuesday and said it would contribute $267,000 to a war-reparations fund being created under a settlement last year between Belgium's Jewish community and the banking industry.

Dick Kovacevich, chairman and chief executive of San Francisco-based Wells, announced the change of heart in a statement released Tuesday afternoon.

"We sincerely apologize to the Jewish community and deeply regret any misunderstanding that our original decision may have caused," Kovacevich said. "We abhor the crimes of the Holocaust because it represents the worst form of discrimination and violation of basic human rights."

Of the 22 banks named in the $59-million settlement, Wells had been the only one to refuse to pay its assessment, which was calculated by a Belgian war-reparations commission.

Wells initially contended that it shouldn't be held responsible for the wartime actions of a Belgian bank to which it had only a tenuous connection. Other banks in the settlement included New York's J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Germany's Deutsche Bank.

Wells' refusal to pay, first reported in The Times on Tuesday, sparked criticism on both sides of the Atlantic. Eli Ringer of Antwerp, Belgium, who represented the Jewish community in negotiations that led to the settlement, said Belgium was stunned that "a big American bank" would refuse to contribute.

E-mail suggesting a boycott of Wells began arriving at the Jewish Journal, a publication with offices in Los Angeles and Orange County, on Tuesday morning.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said Wells executives called him that morning and asked for his advice. He said the company has been a supporter of the center and has been sensitive to Holocaust issues.

"I told them I've known some of the good things they do in the world of charity, but they cannot stand outside a settlement like this," Hier said.

He praised the bank for reversing its decision. "They did the right thing. It was the only thing to do."

The war-reparations commission determined that Wells inherited the liability through its 1996 acquisition of First Interstate Corp. A former First Interstate unit had in the 1950s bought a Belgian bank called Credit Union of Brussels.

That bank was among many in Belgium seized by the German Army during World War II and whose deposits went unclaimed after the war because their Jewish owners had perished in the Holocaust.

Funds from the settlement will go to a foundation that will spend the money on education, memorial projects and assistance to needy members of the Jewish community.

Kovacevich, in his statement Tuesday, repeated Wells' earlier statement that it could find no records of its own confirming the commission's findings.

"Although we had no relationship during the second World War with the Belgian bank in question, no records relating to the basis for this claim and no knowledge of the circumstances around the claim, we still want to make this contribution," Kovacevich said. "It is in line with our company's vision and values."

Times staff writer E. Scott Reckard in Orange County contributed to this report.

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