February 2010 was a time of high tension for top officials at the Jewish organization that processes restitution claims for Holocaust survivors.
Just three months earlier, they had discovered the existence of what would turn out to be a massive, multimillion-dollar fraud taking place at the agency, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. It was, they discovered, being facilitated by Claims Conference employees right under their noses. And, as would eventually be revealed, it had been going on for 15 years and had netted thousands of participants about $57 million meant for needy Holocaust survivors.
Initially, no one but the small circle of people at the very top of the Claims Conference knew about the fraud’s existence, along with the outside law firm they had retained and the FBI, which had been informed and was investigating.
Haim Roet, a former World Bank economist and recent appointee to the Claims Conference board, was not part of this tight circle. But based on his experience with the boards of other major organizations, he knew something was deeply wrong with how the Claims Conference handled the large volume of claims submitted to it, and with how it accounted for the billions of dollars that passed through its channels, all with so few auditors. For months, he protested to Claims Conference officials that their methods for tracking all this had to change.
But Claims Conference C.E.O. Greg Schneider and board chairman Julius Berman refused to relay his demands to other board members. As revealed in an email exchange obtained by the Forward, they insisted that his concerns could merely be presented as background material at the group’s annual board meeting in the summer of 2010.
Finally, in a Feb. 14, 2010 email to Schneider — just days after board members were told of the fraud’s existence — Roet demanded “an objective evaluation of the operations and management of the Claims Conference and a reasonable staff for Internal Audit… to prevent, as much as possible, the risk of fraud.”
In June 2010, when Berman refused to give Roet email addresses for his fellow board members so he could inform them of his misgivings, Roet resigned, determined, as he put it, not to be “a rubber stamp for decisions taken by the chairman.”
The Claims Conference did not respond to several requests from the Forward to interview Berman. But Roet remains upset to this day about Berman’s rebuff of his suggestions for preventing fraud even as they were scrambling to deal with one.
“I was astonished,” Roet said of the first and last annual board meeting he attended in 2009 that gave rise to his concerns. The majority of board members there failed to challenge Berman on anything, he said, adding, “People came from all over the world… and they didn’t open their mouths.”