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Today, Berman faces mounting questions about how he and some of those same top executives handled a prior tipoff that they received about the massive scam back in 2001, some eight years earlier, but which they failed to follow through on. Berman, who has rejected calls for his resignation as board chairman, has announced the establishment of a special committee to investigate the issue.
It’s not the first time that Berman has responded to a crisis in this way. But previously, the principal focus of such investigations has been Claims Conference spending. This may be the first time Berman has called for an investigation into the actions of his organization’s top leaders, including himself. And this time, the tactic of deploying an internal inquiry is under fire from important voices both within and outside the Claims Conference.
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, both Claims Conference board members, are among those calling for an independent probe of the whole issue by outside investigators.
Still, the tactic of establishing an in-house inquiry to stanch criticism of the Claims Conference is one that has worked well for Berman in the past.
In 2007, the Claims Conference announced that its on-staff auditor would examine the circumstances surrounding $700,000 in payments that a grantee gave to a consultant close to Israel Singer, the Claims Conference’s president at the time. Questions had been raised about what, if anything, the consultant, Curtis Hoxter, had done to earn this money. During the period in question, Singer was also involved in negotiations to join Hoxter’s Manhattan public relations firm as a partner.
Singer adamantly denied having had any involvement in the Claims Conference grants, which went to March of the Living, a group that takes young Jews from around the world to Auschwitz for Holocaust education tours. But he withdrew from running for re-election as board president later that year.
At the time the controversy arose, Claims Conference spokeswoman Hillary Kessler-Godin said its auditor’s “major conclusions” would be made public. In 2012 — five years later — the conference’s chief auditor, Yigal Molad Hayo, issued a one-paragraph report in his annual summary, saying that he had found no evidence that Claims Conference funds had been misused.
Hayo said that one area of “unresolved questions” remained, but because the Claims Conference had “no jurisdiction over, or ability to pursue this matter any further,” the Claims Conference audit had been closed.
Hayo added that March of the Living had agreed to establish an “independent investigative body” to continue with its own probe.