LOS ANGELES, June 15 (JTA) Two antagonists in a long-simmering dispute about the handling of Holocaust-era life insurance claims are taking off their gloves. On one side stands Lawrence Eagleburger, chairman of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, known as ICHEIC. The group’s board includes representatives of European insurance carriers, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, major Jewish organizations and the State of Israel. On the other side is John Garamendi, insurance commissioner of California and an ICHEIC commissioner. Garamendi has been a long-standing critic of Eagleburger, calling last year for his resignation. ICHEIC was established in Switzerland in 1998 to speed up and settle Holocaust-era claims against European insurance companies. The current conflict is just the latest twist in an ongoing saga of complaints surrounding the processing of those claims. Garamendi opened the volley in a two-page letter to Eagleburger accusing ICHEIC of sloppy management, foot-dragging in claims processing and favoritism toward European insurers. At the present pace, and as elderly survivors keep dying, “claims will not be completed until 2011,” Garamendi wrote, charging that only 5 percent of claims actually had been paid out. Since ICHEIC’s operations are budgeted only until the end of this year, Garamendi said, he fears “claimants will be deserted.” Garamendi also accused ICHEIC of ignoring its own commissioners “who dare to suggest improvement, make constructive criticism, ask incisive questions or call for better management.” Eagleburger, a former U.S. secretary of state, struck back with a seven-page rebuttal that characterized Garamendi’s letter as “an ongoing embodiment of your grandstanding tactics.” Eagleburger’s letter contained data on ICHEIC’s operations, which JTA clarified in a phone interview with the commission’s chief operating officer, Mara Rudman. Among them are: Since its inception, ICHEIC has received 80,373 insurance claims, of which only 17,200 named a specific European insurer that had issued the policy to a Holocaust victim or survivor. In addition, ICHEIC linked 2,000 additional claims to the names of companies. The remaining 76 percent of claims did not list a specific company. ICHEIC has made concrete settlement offers to 3,700 claimants. Of these, 2,500 have been accepted by the claimants. Some $58 million has been paid out to claimants, with an additional $16 million in “humanitarian” aid going to elderly individuals, who received $1,000 each. German, Swiss, French and Italian insurance companies have given ICHEIC a total of $500 million for its operations and claims settlements. After its budget runs out, ICHEIC expects to receive operating funds for another year. The commission hopes to process all valid claims by early next year and wind up operations by the end of 2005. The main stumbling block in the process is the Italian insurer Assicurazoni Generali, one of Europe’s largest, which did a thriving business before World War II selling policies to Eastern European Jews. A number of survivors are suing Generali for allegedly stonewalling their claims for decades. Rudman said Generali’s current pace was unacceptable and that ICHEIC is seeking to speed up the company’s claim processing. In California, survivors have lawsuits pending against Generali, as well as against ICHEIC for alleged bias in favor of Generali. The lead attorney in most cases has been William Shernoff, and Garamendi publicly has supported the plaintiffs’ suits. According to financial reports filed with California’s secretary of state, Shernoff’s law firm contributed $55,000 to Garamendi’s election campaign in 2002. Asked about the frequent complaints aimed at ICHEIC’s operations by survivors and in congressional hearings, Rudman acknowledged that all sides greatly underestimated the complexity and timeframe of settling claims and that the commission suffered from “some poor communications.” “Everybody expected too much,” she said. “We at ICHEIC have had a lot of ground to make up.”
Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.