The Claims Conference must be reformed under the aegis of outside bodies, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder declared on Tuesday evening. Their comments came at the end of the first day of the Claims Conference’s annual board of directors meeting in New York.
In a statement read at the board meeting that was sent to The Jerusalem Post, Sharansky and Lauder expressed their “great disappointment and dismay” in the “Claims Conference leadership” for failing to disclose to the board of directors the existence of a 2001 letter warning of fraud against the Holocaust restitution organization. They also decried the lack of disclosure of a subsequent report on the whistleblower letter conducted by a paralegal employed by then-board member and pro-bono legal counsel Julius Berman.
Berman became chairman in 2002.
For nearly two decades, conference employees pilfered $57 million in funds meant as restitution to Holocaust survivors.
Citing an internal probe into the conduct of the senior leadership of the conference that was released on Monday, Sharansky and Lauder said that the “the failure to disclose documents relating to the 2001 letter to the Board was ‘totally unacceptable.’”
Sharansky and Lauder asked “who, if anyone, decided not to disclose the existence of the 2001 anonymous letter and of the paralegal’s report to the Claims Conference Board” in 2010, following the disclosure of the fraud.
The final version of the Select Leadership Committee’s report had recommended that Berman appoint a Restructuring and Strategic Planning Committee comprised of members of the board and up to three external lay leaders to make recommendations regarding the “structure, administration, management and governance of the Claims Conference.”
Sharansky and Lauder endorsed this proposal but proposed that “a clear majority of the committee charged with implementing the Select Leadership Committee’s recommendations shall consist of prominent representatives of the Jewish community and the State of Israel independent of the Claims Conference lay and professional leadership.”
The two also recommended that during the current meeting the board appoint “a Special Committee independent of the Claims Conference officers to seek answers” to several questions posed by the Jewish Agency and WJC regarding the conduct of senior officers of the conference.
Said committee, they proposed, would retain the power to utilize conference ombudsman Shmuel Hollander in preparing its report. Hollander would be “answerable solely to the Special Committee,” whose report would be presented within six months.
"For far too long there has been a gap between the tireless efforts of the Claims Conference on behalf of the Jewish people and the growing perception that the organization is run like a closed club, with little transparency or accountability in its decision-making process," Sharansky told the Post.
"The Select Leadership Committee report presented today to the Board of Directors emphasizes the urgent need to address this problem. I support the report's recommendation and propose this opportunity be taken to review the structure and the governance of this organization."
A Claims Conference spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.