Claims Conference elections held in 'unheard of' manner, asserts board member

Several Claims Conference board members express discontent at the way senior official elections have been conducted.

July 14, 2013 22:04
4 minute read.
Claims Conference

Claims Conference. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Several members of the board of the Claims Conference have expressed their discontent with the way in which last week’s election of senior officials was conducted, with one even going so far as to resign from the board in protest.

Those publicly expressing discontent seem to be in the minority, however.

While most members of the board voted for the reelection of chairman Julius Berman and senior executive Greg Schneider, several refrained from casting ballots, in protest of what one director termed an effort to stack the deck.

Speaking with The Jerusalem Post on Friday, director Max Leibmann, senior vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, stated that he had “walked out” rather than cast a ballot during last week’s board meeting in New York.

The decision to not allow board members to vote on the reelection of individual officers was “unheard of,” he said.

The new electoral rules, it should be noted, were voted upon and accepted by the board.

Leibmann also said that he believed that had Berman been working for a private business, he would have been required to “resign immediately,” following the discovery that millions of dollars had been stolen under his watch.

Berman came under fire in recent months over allegations that he had covered up his role in a botched 2001 fraud probe following the receipt of an anonymous letter warning that the organization was being swindled.

An internal report on the matter released last week asserted that rather than engaging in an intentional cover up, however, Berman’s actions were part of a “litany of lack of diligence, competence and judgement” by conference leaders.

A coterie of conference employees and false claimants together pilfered $57 million dollars in restitution funds from the Claims Conference over a period of 16 years before finally being discovered in 2009.

“When it came time to elect officers at the board’s annual meeting this week, members were allowed to cast only a single up-or-down vote on a 16-person slate, preventing them from voting against, or even abstaining on, the re-election of the chairman or other individuals involved in the breakdown of control and accountability,” director Sam Norich wrote in an op-ed published in The Forward on Sunday.

Norich, who is the publisher of The Forward and represents the Jewish labor committee on the board, resigned from the board on Wednesday in “protest” of what he termed the unwillingness of the senior leadership to “acknowledge its failures.”

Berman, he wrote, “has gone to great lengths to avoid accountability for his role in 2001 – as a member of the board’s audit and executive committees and pro bono counsel to the Claims Conference.”

Norich also condemned what he termed the “false conflict between the needs and interests of Holocaust survivors and the purported calumnies and sensationalism of the press” that he said had been promoted by “Berman and some of those who support his continued chairmanship.”

“At stake is not only the continued, and crucial, flow of German reparations for material losses at the hands of the Nazis, but also the morale of hundreds of gifted, capable and devoted Claims Conference employees in Europe, Israel and the United States; the principles of transparency, accountability and integrity in communal and charitable organizations; and the sterling reputation of an organization that was, and must be, beyond reproach,” he said.

In a statement to the Post, the World Jewish Congress confirmed that WJC representative Michael Schneider had requested that abstentions be recorded and was denied. Accordingly, “since the only option was to vote yes or no on the entire slate, the WJC did not vote.”

An organization representing German Jewry also expressed unhappiness over the way the vote was conducted.

“The Claims Conference only allowed a yes or no vote on the entire slate, including a long list of vice presidents rather than separate votes – and did not allow abstentions,” Stephan Kramer of the Central Council of Jews in Germany told the Post via email on Wednesday.

“Accordingly,” he continued, “some organizations simply did not vote. I think that procedure speaks for itself.”

Far from the majority of the Jewish organizations represented on the Claims Conference board issued negative statements, however.

Vivian Wineman, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, praised the work of the Claims Conference following the board meeting.

“One cannot comment on the conference without mentioning not only the excellent work which it is doing, but the way in which it has increased so greatly during the last 15 years. More categories of victims are being helped and the amounts they receive are greater.

In many of their programs this increase amounts to as much as 700 percent. This huge expansion is a tribute not only to the leadership of the conference, but also to its relationship with the German government who recognize their efficiency, integrity and compassion,” he said.

Speaking with the Post on Friday, Laura Solomon, an attorney specializing in the philanthropic sector, noted that Berman’s failure to share information regarding the whistle-blower letter and failure to subsequently report his investigation to the board could potentially lead the New York attorney-general, should he involve himself, to take the position that Berman “breached his fiduciary duties to the organization.”

“The Attorney-General’s Office can go after fiduciary [breaches].

They can investigate, they can prosecute and, interestingly, in New York then can take even take restitution,” she said.

An official for the attorney-general told The Forward last week that their office was aware of the matter but offered no further comment.

The Claims Conference did not reply to a request for comment in response to Solomon’s statement.

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