Bronfman: Singer took money

Israel Singer (Bienert/Bundesregierung)

Israel Singer (Bienert/Bundesregierung)

NEW YORK (JTA) — World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman says he dismissed Rabbi Israel Singer from the organization last week because Singer was taking money without proper authorization or documentation. Bronfman made the allegations in a March 14 letter to European Jewish Congress President Pierre Besnainou. It came after WJC affiliates in Europe, Latin America and Israel expressed dismay about being notified in a conference call earlier that day that Singer — who had held a variety of top positions in the WJC over the past 30 years — had been fired. Singer “helped himself to cash from the WJC office, my cash,” Bronfman wrote in the letter, a copy of which JTA obtained. “We thought we had that all cleared up, and then we discovered that he was playing the same game in Israel, taking cash from the office and never accounting for it.” He continued, “The final blow came when we discovered that he was playing games with his hotel bills in Jerusalem.” “Please understand that this was much harder on me than anyone else,” Bronfman wrote. “It took me many weeks of crying to find out I was so badly used by a man I used to love.”Singer released a statement Thursday through his attorney, calling the accusations “baseless” and adding, “I categorically deny them.” “I am shocked and deeply saddened that Edgar, a man with whom I have worked so closely for 30 years would go to such lengths to publicly shame both himself and me,” the statement read. “For over 30 years, I have given of my heart and soul to achieve the objectives of the WJC and for the benefit of the Jewish people. I will not engage in any petty or mean-spirited or valueless arguments.” He concluded: “I will spend the rest of my life in pursuing causes for the Jewish people and human rights, and to remedy injustices against those victimized by prejudice and ignorance. My efforts will never cease.” In a statement Thursday afternoon, a WJC spokesperson replied, “These issues are now before the proper legal authorities.”Our sadness continues because underlying these issues has been Mr. Singer’s inability to accept responsibility for his actions. Mr. Bronfman is committed to his continuing efforts to restore integrity to the World Jewish Congress, and that will remain his focus.”The latest developments come as the fallout from Singer’s abrupt dismissal last week continue to roil the Jewish world.Singer has been a major figure in Jewish life over the
past three decades. A former chairman and secretary-general of the WJC
— and a top official of the Claims Conference and the World Jewish
Restitution Organization — he played a major role in winning billions of
dollars from European banks and governments in restitution for victims
of the Holocaust. He also helped to uncover the Nazi past of Kurt
Waldheim, a former Austrian president and United Nations
secretary-general.Officials at the Claims Conference told JTA that Singer’s status at the
WJC has no bearing on his role there at least until July, when new
directors and officers are elected.
Julius Berman, chairman of the Claims Conference, said he did not think
the restitution negotiations with European governments would be
affected by these developments.”The substance of the arguments we make are much more powerful than the identity of the person who makes them,” Berman said. Founded in Geneva in 1936, the WJC is the umbrella organization for more than 100 local communities and is the putative representative of world Jewry. The affair has brought to a head accusations by WJC affiliates that the organization suffers from a lack of transparency and democracy. Bronfman’s letter was intended to quiet unease among WJC affiliates over the way Singer was terminated, but several sources from WJC affiliates told JTA off-the-record that they found the letter unconvincing. In the course of a conference call March 20, members of the European Jewish Congress’ executive board called on the WJC to hold a steering committee meeting by early May so that Besnainou could have input into the agenda for a WJC governing board meeting set for June 10-12 in Brussels.In a confidential pre-call memo to EJC board members obtained by JTA, Besnainou wrote: “The decision to brutally dismiss Israel Singer is one of the last
elements in this long list of unilateral and non democratic decisions.”However, several EJC members have said that the organization was now
trying to move away from its initial harsh public comments and calm
things down so that discussions with the WJC
could take place outside the media spotlight. The Latin American Jewish Congress also registered its displeasure with the decision, and Jack Terpins, its president, came to New York this week to talk to Singer and WJC Secretary-General Stephen Herbits. “We’re not taking sides in this fight,” Terpins told JTA. “What we do not support is the way in which the decision was taken. It’s unfortunate that we had to wash this dirty laundry in public.”Herbits rejected accusations that Singer’s firing was handled improperly. “Whoever says we don’t have governance doesn’t know what they are talking about. It is grandstanding of the worst order. There is no one more dedicated than I to proper governance,” Herbits told JTA. Israeli WJC officials, for their part, were further incensed by Bronfman’s announcement on the March 14 call that Bobby Brown, director-general of the Israel branch, had been fired and the branch’s funding cut off. In the hours after the call, the European and Israeli affiliates submitted letters of protest to Bronfman. Besnainou conveyed his “strong disappointment” with the call and urged Bronfman not to take any action beyond ordering an audit of the Israeli branch, or the Europeans would consider withdrawing temporarily from the WJC.The Israeli branch issued a similar threat, calling the conference call illegal because the Israelis’ microphones apparently were inoperable, leaving them unable to voice opposition to the proceedings. Besnainou also reported trouble with his microphone. Herbits denied any suggestion of foul play with the microphones and said an inquiry was under way. Besnainou’s letter appeared to have prompted Bronfman’s response, in which he spoke of the difficulty of the decision but stressed his conviction that Singer had to go. “That decision will stand. There are no threats that can make me change a path that means the integrity of the WJC,” he wrote. “To reverse that decision would tell the world that while we want to clean up our act, we don’t really mean it.” Singer has been under a cloud since the revelation several years ago that he secretly transferred $1.2 million of WJC money to a Swiss bank account. The money subsequently was returned, but critics say the transfer was never fully explained. A number of investigations were launched in the wake of that revelation. A 2006 report by the New York State Attorney General’s Office found no evidence of criminality on Singer’s part, but assailed the organization for lax record keeping and said Singer had violated his fiduciary duties by moving money around without proper authorization. In 2005, a report by the accounting firm Price Waterhouse Coopers sought to analyze a decade’s worth of financial documentation from WJC’s Geneva office but was unable to account for $3.8 million of WJC money. A separate Internal Revenue Service investigation into the organization’s finances is under way.In explaining WJC’s, action, Herbits told JTA that the WJC was continuing to comply with reporting requirements established by the New York Attorney General’s Office, and that the information that had emerged since the initial probe essentially had forced the organization’s hand.In an interview with JTA, Herbits said he understood that people were upset about the process of the firing, but insisted that the substance of the action was correct. Bronfman made a similar distinction in his letter to Besnainou. “Perhaps I should have consulted with the entire group before I made that painful decision,” Bronfman wrote. “The reason I didn’t is I knew that so many of you would have a real problem facing Israel’s sickness and my need to start the cleaning process where it had to start. “Please be calm. And think it through,” he concluded. “I have only the best interest of the WJC in mind.”(JTA Editor Lisa Hostein and Staff Writer Ben Harris in New York, and Correspondents Dinah Spritzer in Prague and Florencia Arbiser in Buenos Aires, contributed to this report.)

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