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Chasing Cash to Prove Point

Vietnamese who lost their deposits in U.S. and other foreign banks when Saigon fell 28 years ago are trying to get it back through the courts.

May 27, 2003|E. Scott Reckard | Times Staff Writer

Most foreign banks had abandoned Saigon by the time helicopters airlifted the last evacuee from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in April 1975.

They left behind a largely unnoticed group of victims of the communist victory -- thousands of Vietnamese who were unable to recover money they had deposited in financial institutions such as Chase Manhattan Bank, Citibank and the Bank of Tokyo.

Now, 28 years later, more than 20 of those depositors have filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court, hoping to reclaim passbook accounts and certificates of deposit that evaporated along with the South Vietnamese regime.

Led by a Vietnamese immigrant with a night school law degree, they are suing five banks, including Chase Manhattan, Citibank parent Citigroup Inc. and Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi -- financial Goliaths that have consistently denied any obligation to pay.

Alleging fraud and breach of contract among other things, the lawsuit contends the banks attracted customers to their branches in Vietnam during the war by pledging to honor accounts, no matter what.

Instead, the plaintiffs allege, the banks shut their doors without warning before the communist takeover. Anxious depositors were turned away when they inquired about their accounts in the weeks immediately before and after the fall of Saigon.

"They just said the bank was closed and everyone had left. There were no new bankers," said Le Dung Thi Nguyen of West Covina, whose late husband is a plaintiff in the suit, which seeks class-action status for all depositors in similar situations.

Her husband, Huan Tran Dang, an author and former journalist for a South Vietnamese military publication, spent eight years in a communist "re-education" camp before immigrating to the United States. He died recently of liver cancer, leaving his 71-year-old widow to press the claim against Chase for $622.25, plus 28 years' interest.

"He wasn't pursuing it for the money," said Thu-Cuc T. "Tracy" Phung, the depositors' attorney. "But as a journalist he wanted fairness and justice. For the rest of the people, not just himself."

Dang's six-month CD with Chase paid 23 1/4% interest, but Phung said a court setting interest at a fair rate in dollars might rule the claim is now worth $3,000 to $4,000. Among other things, the suit seeks an accounting of how many thousands of similar small accounts were at the banks -- and exactly what happened to the money.

The suit is one in a series of similar claims pursued by Phung, whose offices are located above a tea and ginseng shop in Orange County's Little Saigon, home to more ethnic Vietnamese residents and businesses than any place outside Vietnam.

Phung, who took law classes at night from National University in San Diego while raising four children, was successful in her first attempt, winning a $2-million payment from Royal Dutch/Shell for nearly 600 Vietnamese workers who lost their jobs without severance pay when the oil company's Vietnam operations were taken over by the communist government. Shell said it felt a moral, though not legal, obligation to pay.

But other cases brought by Phung, who has returned to Vietnam 16 times in the course of her work, have been stymied in the courts or rejected outright.

Just this month, lawsuits on behalf of former Vietnamese employees of the U.S. government were thrown out of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington. Edward J. Damich, the court's chief judge, said the suits had been brought too late, forcing him "regrettably" to grant the U.S. government's dismissal motion despite "tremendous sympathy for the plight of these plaintiffs."

Damich called the case "one more aspect of the unfortunate predicament of an untold number of Vietnamese nationals who were working in Vietnam for various agencies of the United States at the time the United States government abandoned the country at the end of the Vietnam war."

The bank depositors named in the suit -- Vietnamese natives who now live in Orange and Los Angeles counties, except for one in Georgia and one in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon -- approached Phung after hearing about her other cases.

Their suit against the banks, filed in April, faces significant legal hurdles. In addition to asserting that statutes of limitations have passed, the banks have argued that their legal obligation to depositors was wiped out by the communists' takeover of their operations in Vietnam.

"We didn't willingly close the branch," said Paul Marriage, a spokesman for Standard Chartered Bank in London, one of the defendants. "We were taken over lock, stock and barrel in 1975 by the government, and we lost all the assets. And although we reopened in 1990, none of the assets or customer records ever were returned."

Added Bob Hand, general counsel for Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi's U.S. operations: "My sense is that it will be a real challenge just to establish what the facts are after all the time has passed."

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