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Jewish lawyer defends decision of firm to represent Swiss bank

WASHINGTON, March 4 (JTA) — The president of the American Jewish Committee is defending his law firm’s decision to provide strategic advice to a Swiss bank accused of collaborating with Nazi Germany and misappropriating assets of Jewish Holocaust victims. Robert Rifkind, a senior partner at Cravath, Swain & Moore, said his firm agreed to advise Credit Suisse in order to help the embattled institution come to terms with its past and right a series of historical wrongs. “They’ve made it very clear to us that they are bound and determined to address this matter in an open, complete and absolutely fair manner,” Rifkind said of the Swiss banking giant. “We were brought on board to help them achieve that aspiration.” Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, which has spearheaded the investigation into Switzerland’s wartime role and the search for missing Jewish assets, was sharply critical of the move by Rifkind’s firm. “The reason Cravath is representing Credit Suisse is to make a buck. Any suggestion that they’re doing it for any other reason is nonsense, pure baloney,” Steinberg, who was not immediately available for comment, told the Associated Press. The high-priced New York law firm — the second-most profitable in the nation according to a 1995 survey — apparently engaged in extensive soul-searching and internal debate surrounding the issue of providing counsel to Credit Suisse. The decision was challenged in an internal memo signed by a dozen associates. “It seemed to me and it seemed to my partners that there was a constructive role to be played by lawyers of skill and imagination here,” said Rifkind, who took particular issue with Steinberg’s characterization of his firm’s motives. “I don’t know what’s bothering Mr. Steinberg,” he said. “The World Jewish Congress has expressed its pleasure at various steps that Credit Suisse has taken over the last few weeks. “Why under those circumstances they would choose to say surly things about counsel to Credit Suisse, I don’t know. It seems to me pretty shabby and gratuitous.” Earlier this year, Credit Suisse Chairman Rainer Gut urged creation of a fund to begin compensating Holocaust survivors. The first major Swiss banking official to do so, Gut helped break an impasse between Switzerland and the international community. The bank later joined Union Bank of Switzerland and Swiss Banking Corp. in establishing a fund of some $70 million that now constitutes the core of Switzerland’s Holocaust memorial fund. Jewish and U.S. officials, citing wartime documents, have accused Credit Suisse of playing a leading role in purchasing looted gold, financing the Nazi war effort and turning its own profit from the Holocaust. “Credit Suisse Zurich is the most frequent violator of the Allied Code of Conduct concerning Swiss banks,” said a 1945 report by the U.S. Foreign Economic Administration. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which is assisting Holocaust survivors in a class action lawsuit against Credit Suisse and other banks, said the bank has a right to be “appropriately defended.” Apparently referring to the law firm’s Jewish partners and associates, Cooper said, “I guess that’s what you have Yom Kippur for.” He emphasized, however, that attention should not be centered on the firm. “Nothing should be done to take the focus off the culprits,” Cooper said. “The culprits are the banks. We’re not interested in who their lawyers are. It’s now March 1997. They still have the money.”