Paul Berger discovered his latest investigation for The Forward almost by chance, sitting in a nearly empty courtroom in New York, covering the closing arguments of an obscure, drawn-out trial in early May.
That trial was supposed to be the last chapter in a $57-million fraud. Thirty-one people, 11 of whom were former employees of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, were implicated in a 15-year scheme to siphon money through false claims from the organization, which is dedicated to providing German reparations to needy Holocaust survivors.
This all became public knowledge in 2009. But an anonymous 2001 letter, submitted as evidence in the trial, indicated that the organization may have known about the fraud for nearly a decade before the
fraud trial was a twinkle in the US Attorney’s eye, years before the organization itself admitted to knowing it was going on.
That letter led Berger back to the transcripts of the trial, specifically to the testimonies of two witnesses, the Forward reporter told CJR. Those testimonies mentioned other documents pertaining to the letter, specifically a few faxes discussing its allegations. “Those faxes were copied to Claims Conference officials. So without having asked anybody anything, I could already see who was aware of the letter at the time, and how it was investigated,” Berger said.
From there, he built his case: The Claims Conference, including its current chairman, knew about the fraud for years before it became public. Now, The Forward and the Claims Conference have locked themselves into opposing narratives on the story behind the organization’s fraud. It’s clear that the Claims Conference would rather put it all firmly in the past. But as the organization meets this week for its annual summit, members will have to reckon with fallout from The Forward’s investigation. And while defenders of the organization have said the issue is solved, Forward Editor in Chief Jane Eisner, in an editorial, framed the investigation as arguably as important to the Claims Conference mission as the doling out of the funds itself:
Everything the Jewish community and its representatives do in relation to the Holocaust must be above reproach, or we lose some of the moral authority to make our claim for restitution and recognition of suffering.
The Forward has called for an external organization to investigate.
The big question, after The Forward started digging, was how, exactly, the fraud unfolded. Of particular interest was its current chairman, Julius Berman, who first told the paper that finding this out was “just a detail.”
Initially, Berman characterized his involvement in the organization at the time of the 2001 letter as a pro-bono counsel. But The Forward later reported that he was sitting on two important committees for the organization. After that information was published, Berman declined to comment to the paper, citing a then-pending internal investigation he created into the 2001 letter—after The Forward started reporting on it. That investigation, as reported on Monday, found substantial mismanagement among the organization’s leadership. Those findings were so controversial internally that two members of the committee responsible for writing the report have resigned in protest.
The Claims Conference meeting is closed to the press, but The Forward and other outlets in the Jewish press are paying close attention to the results. That goes for their readers, too: Eisner said that Berger’s reporting on the Claims Conference has attracted excellent site traffic, despite the nuanced, somewhat complicated, nature of the story.
His stories are written with little input from the organization itself, which still seems to prefer that the continued scrutiny would go away.
“I find the Claims Conference to be a somewhat defensive organization,” Berger said. “And I would say that they only divulge as much information as is necessary.” That reticence is aimed at a paper that is, for all intents and purposes, part of the community it’s reporting on. The Forward’s publisher even sits on the board of the Claims Conference, and the organization gave a $22,500 grant to The Forward in 2010. So the contentious relationship between the paper and the Conference now speak to just how divisive this investigation has become.
There’s not a consensus among the people who benefit most from the organization’s mission — the Holocaust survivors — on the investigation into the Claims Conference’s handling of the fraud. Some, to be sure, find the revelations of the letter to be detrimental to the Conference’s overall cause. But, Berger noted, the Claims Conference is already a “contentious” organization among survivors. For example, the organization has donated millions of dollars to initiatives promoting Holocaust education and awareness — including to Jewish schools, museums, and universities. “If you’re a Holocaust survivor living on social security in Brooklyn, and you can’t afford a hearing aid, you don’t necessarily want the Claims Conference to be spending millions of dollars” on those education efforts, Berger explained.
As Eisner noted, the stakes here are high, even after the obligations of the letter of the law have been met. “What troubles me is that when we are talking about the most sympathetic and needy people in our community… and we’re talking about public money from the German government. We have a special obligation to make sure the money is spent the way it’s supposed to be spent,” she said. The Forward’s investigation into the Claims Conference, she argues, is part of that special obligation, by holding the organization accountable for the ethical and leadership obligations that go along with its central, and admirable, purpose.