A major Dutch insurance company said this week it was willing to join an international commission seeking to resolve Holocaust-era insurance claims: but only if it can use its existing claims process.
That condition was rejected by Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress. He said that unless the company, Aegon, agrees to an audit and other procedures in compliance with international guidelines established for claims processing, his organization's executive board would meet Jan. 25 to call for a boycott of the firm.
"We are not going to leave it up to each company to determine for itself the standards by which proof of a claim is required and how they will do archival searches," said Steinberg. "We had this experience with the Swiss banks, who said they had 775 [dormant Holocaust-era] accounts, but who the Volcker Commission found had 54,000 accounts."
Steinberg said Lawrence Eagleburger, head of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, has written to state insurance commissioners telling them that because Aegon, believed to be the seventh biggest life insurance company in the world, has not joined the commission, it is not entitled to safe harbor and therefore subject to sanctions. Steinberg noted that Aegon did not establish its own claims processing office until seven months after it was invited to join the commission and only after the WJC threatened a boycott.
The chief operating officer of Aegon USA, Patrick Baird, said he hopes to meet with Eagleburger and the commission's chief of staff, Neil Sher, to resolve their differences within "three or four weeks."
"All we have ever asked the commission is that it consider that we have a fully funded, independent [claims processing] operation in the Netherlands," said Baird. "Just because it is not the same as the international commission's, do you have to throw it away? We believe it should be part of our participation with the commission."
Baird noted that although there have been no claims paid through the commission's claims process, his company has paid claims through its office in the Netherlands. He said that under an agreement with the Central Jewish Board of the Netherlands, his company put $22 million into a foundation in the Netherlands to pay for the processing of claims, to pay claims themselves, as well as to provide a humanitarian fund. Baird said his firm knows of no unpaid claims, and cited a statement by the Central Jewish Board stating that 95 to 98 percent of all Holocaust-era claims were paid by 1953.
But there is conflict among the estimated 3,500 Dutch survivors. In a Dec. 20 letter, the presidents of two survivor organizations in the Netherlands disassociated themselves from the Central Jewish Board and insisted that they represent 80 percent of Dutch Holocaust survivors.
"These survivors are the true people who should have a say in these matters," said the letter. "Our views and wishes are totally ignored by the Central Jewish Board."
Steinberg said the WJC "does not accept an attempt to divide the Jewish world or agree to pay-outs that exclude the largest part of the Jewish world."
He was referring to the humanitarian funds Aegon established exclusively for Dutch survivors and another $4 million fund created late last year for California survivors after that state's insurance commissioner threatened Aegon with sanctions.
"We want all survivors to receive humanitarian benefits, whether they live in California, New York or Tel Aviv," said Steinberg. "Aegon has not made a settlement in New York, so survivors here are not entitled to benefit from that fund, even though they comprise the largest group of survivors in America."
Audry Samers, deputy general counsel to the New York State Insurance Department, said New York believes Aegon must join the commission with no special conditions attached.
"All companies need to join at the same level," she said.
Baird acknowledged that the humanitarian fund in California would not benefit survivors elsewhere and said it was created at the request of California officials. Although New York officials have not made the same request, he said, "we will deal with each regulatory body that comes to us. It is entirely possible that we may do separate agreements with different states."
But Steinberg said that by joining the commission, Aegon would not have to deal with separate regulatory bodies and establish separate funds.
Sher, chief of staff of the commission, said the commission was established "with international Jewish organizations to deal globally. This is not to take away what Aegon did in Holland, and no one is asking any company to pay twice. If they don't owe any claims, and they go through the commission process [of an independent audit], they will get a clean bill of health."
He added that he was confident that once Aegon became a member of the commission, "we could work out the details" to Aegon's satisfaction.Although there are more than a half-dozen other major insurance companies that have also refused to join the commission, Steinberg said attention was being directed at Aegon because of its $10 billion purchase last July of Transamerica, a California-based insurance company. Meanwhile, the five insurance companies that have joined the commission are slated to publish the names of tens of thousands of unpaid insurance policies bought by Jews killed in the Holocaust. Steinberg said the list will be published on the Internet and in booklet form. At the time of the release, the commission will announce how survivors can make claims on those policies.
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