WASHINGTON, Nov. 23 (JTA) — Lawyers who helped Holocaust survivors win a $1.25 billion settlement from Swiss banks have submitted their bill: $15 million.
The attorneys’ fees have Jewish groups questioning the morality of lawyers who seek money for what they see as a humanitarian effort.
“Holocaust survivors are being exploited by a feeding frenzy of fee-grabbing lawyers,” said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress.
The judge overseeing the August 1998 settlement will now review those requests — which were capped at 1.8 percent of the award, or about $22.5 million — and decide how much the attorneys should receive. Judge Edward Korman is scheduled to hold a hearing on the requests Jan. 5.
Roman Kent, an Auschwitz survivor who chairs the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, had harsh words for the nine attorneys who submitted the bill.
“First it was the Germans, then it was the Swiss and then it’s the lawyers stealing everything,” said Kent, who said the settlement with the banks was reached through the political and diplomatic efforts of Jewish groups and American officials and not the lawsuits that were filed.
Kent said he was not opposed to lawyers recouping “reasonable” expenses.
Attorney Robert Swift, who is handling the group’s request for fees and expenses, rejected the criticism, saying it was the lawsuits that led to the settlement.
“The litigation was central to the whole negotiations and we were central to those negotiations,” he said, adding that Jewish groups demanded to be involved in the out-of-court settlement “at the last minute.”
Swift and another attorney, Mel Urbach, who has represented the World Council of Orthodox Communities, said the total amount of expenses and fees would be less than 2 percent of the settlement, which has yet to be approved by the judge.
“It’s important for lawyers to get remuneration in human rights cases” or else the cases will not be taken, said Urbach, whose father survived the Holocaust.
Swift asked the court for nearly $3 million in fees and expenses for 2,520 hours of work, while Urbach has asked for about $2 million for 3,938 hours.
Attorney Edward Fagan asked for the most, nearly $4 million in fees and expenses for 6,299 hours. Fagan did not return two calls to his New York office.
Swift also questioned the criticism directed at the lawyers in light of the fact that officials with the World Jewish Restitution Organization, an umbrella group, have suggested that part of the settlement go to a fund for Holocaust education, research and various social and cultural projects.
The lawyers representing Holocaust survivors argue that that all the moneys should go to survivors.
Steinberg said the WJRO has yet to submit a proposed distribution plan and will not take any money from the settlement.
“The WJRO and WJC have not taken a penny and will not take a penny from the proceeds, and our lawyers are acting on a pro-bono basis,” he said.
Jewish officials are particularly upset that the lawyers asked the court to keep secret all details regarding the hours they spent working on the case.
The officials have asked the court and the lawyers to make their records public.
“They are acting like Swiss banks,” Steinberg said. “Why are they hiding their time records?”
However, Swift said attorneys in such class-action suits regularly ask the judge to keep the records confidential in case a settlement is not approved, because the defendants would then have access to information that could help them in another lawsuit.
Steinberg said one of the attorney’s time sheets shows that he charged $2,365 — 8.6 hours at $275 an hour — to purchase and read “Nazi Gold” by Tom Bower. Steinberg refused to identify the lawyer.
Before the Jan. 5 hearing on the fee request, the judge is planning to hold a number of fairness hearings, allowing people to comment on the proposed $1.25 billion settlement.
At one hearing Monday in Brooklyn, Lawrence Eagleburger, the former secretary of state heading up a commission seeking to settle Holocaust- era insurance claims, raised concerns that all but three Swiss insurance companies were protected from further action under the settlement agreement, according to Urbach.
At that same hearing, Polish survivors expressed concerns that they were not covered by the settlement.
Another fairness hearing will be held on Nov. 29, when those directly involved in the settlement will be able to comment on it.
An additional hearing will be held shortly in Israel.
Urbach said he expected most of the comments will deal with how and to whom the money should be distributed.