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Swiss commercialbanks offer maximum$600 million for settlement 06/19/98
By Ernst E. Abegg Associated Press Writer ZURICH, Switzerland-Switzerland'sthree biggest commercial banks said today they are prepared to offer a maximumof $600 million in a global settlement of claims by Holocaust victims-asum that angry Jewish groups called offensively low. The announcement byCredit Suisse, Swiss Bank Corp. and Union Bank of Switzerland marked thefirst time the banks have specified a figure for a possible settlement.The $600 million, they said, would include $70 million already paid intoa fund to help needy Holocaust survivors. "By all legitimate criteria,this is a fair offer," the banks said in their joint statement. Jewishgroups, which have estimated the banks still hold billions of dollars indormant wartime accounts, were outraged. "The Swiss banks know thatthe amounts they are discussing are offensive, and if we were not dealingwith such a tragic story, this would be laughable," Yoram Dori, anIsraeli spokesman for the World Jewish Restitution Organization, told TheAssociated Press in Jerusalem. The New York-based group tries to ensurethat property and money lost or looted during World War II is returned toJews. Edward Fagan, a lawyer for the claimants, said today in New York:"My 31,000 clients will not stand for this." "The problemis the banks' refusal to allow their sacrosanct, supposedly transparentprocess ... to be open to public scrutiny," he said. "This isn'tabout justice. This is about protecting the banks' bottom line and theircozy jobs at the expense of Holocaust victims."
Still, Fagan said he's prepared to negotiate.
Avraham Burg, co-chairman of the restitution organization, was less conciliatory:"What they are saying with this figure is actually they don't wantto negotiate." "It was a very, very unnecessary statement whichhas thrown the process backwards," he told Associated Press Television."We will say thank you but no thank you and go back to the public struggle."
The three Swiss banks urged the plaintiffs to accept the offer "sothat money can immediately be distributed to Holocaust survivors and heirsof Holocaust victims." However, the statement warned that through repeatedviolations of a court-ordered confidentiality agreement, "the WorldJewish Congress and the plaintiffs' lawyers are seriously jeopardizing thesettlement negotiations." Fagan angrily denied the accusation. CreditSuisse, Swiss Bank Corp. and Union Bank of Switzerland are negotiating withJewish organizations and lawyers for class-action claimants on a settlement.They met June 5 with lawyers for Holocaust survivors amid reports the bankswould offer more than $1 billion to settle claims they stole assets fromdormant wartime accounts. Fagan had said even $1 billion might not satisfysome claimants. Tens of thousands of Holocaust victims deposited money inSwiss banks when the Nazis were gaining power in Europe. Plaintiffs, however,say bank officials stonewalled survivors and their heirs after World WarII, claiming they could not find accounts or demanding nonexistent deathcertificates before giving funds to relatives of those who died in concentrationcamps. Earlier this month, the Federal Reserve approved a merger of theU.S. operations of the Union Bank of Switzerland and Swiss Bank Corp. Thenew entity will be the second-largest bank in the world, with assets of$627 billion, behind Japan's Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi. Regulators had heldup approval because of complaints that the banks were dragging their feeton releasing the Holocaust records.
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