Restitution Leader Disbarred by Court After Investigation Of Job Misconduct

By Nacha Cattan

Published September 05, 2003, issue of September 05, 2003.
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The former top American professional of an international Holocaust restitution commission has been disbarred.

The move comes one year after the official, Neal Sher, former chief of staff in the Washington office of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, was investigated by the commission for allegedly misappropriating funds for personal use. The investigation was launched after Sher admitted “unauthorized reimbursements of his ICHEIC travel expenses,” according to sources and an internal document written by the commission’s chairman, former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger.

On August 28, 2003, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals ordered Sher “disbarred by consent effective forthwith” from the Bar Association of the District of Columbia. The order does not specify the reasons for his disbarment, but Sher signed an affidavit consenting to it. A consent affidavit is submitted when an attorney is the subject of an “investigation or a pending proceeding based on allegations of misconduct,” according to a rule of the D.C. bar association that was cited in the court order.

Sher told the Forward that his decision not to fight against disbarment was “purely due to the fact that the cost would be absolutely prohibitive.” He also said that Eagleburger had told him “that the bar action was an outrage and I know that he wrote a letter to the bar telling them it was inappropriate for them to proceed” with the investigation.

Eagleburger’s office confirmed he wrote a letter to the bar stating “I would respectfully suggest… that no further action be taken against Mr. Sher.”

Through an assistant, Eagleburger said, Sher “did a bad thing, but didn’t deserve to have his whole life destroyed.”

Sher was investigated by the restitution commission after admitting “unauthorized reimbursements of his ICHEIC travel expenses” according to sources and an internal document written by the commission’s chairman, former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger. Following the investigation, which was subjected to a “review” by a former FBI chief, Judge William Webster, Sher resigned in June 2002 and paid “full and immediate restitution,” the commission document states. A source with direct knowledge of the situation, as well as other sources close to the commission, verified the existence and content of the document.

Although the commission’s allegations were made, the Forward has not ascertained whether they are true, nor has the Forward learned whether these allegations precipitated the investigation that led to his disbarment.

According to the bar association’s rules, a consent affidavit, which is not a public document, must acknowledge that the “material facts upon which the allegations of misconduct are predicated are true.” It must also declare that the attorney knows that if disciplinary proceedings based on the alleged misconduct were brought, “the attorney could not successfully defend against them.” A disbarred attorney may not apply for reinstatement for at least five years.

One restitution leader, Elan Steinberg, defended Sher, who was well respected for his role in investigating war criminals as the federal government’s chief Nazi hunter from 1983 to 1994. “What happened at [the international commission] Eagleburger accepted as a full and prompt resolution of the matter,” said Steinberg, the former executive director of the World Jewish Congress.

As director of the Office of Special Investigations of the United States Department of Justice, Sher handled the denaturalization and deportation of dozens of onetime Nazi war criminals. He headed an investigation into the Nazi past of Austrian president Kurt Waldheim and is credited for Waldheim’s placement on the watch list of persons ineligible to enter the United States. In 1994 Sher became the top executive of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which he led for two years.

Steinberg praised Sher’s work at the Justice Department: “Neal Sher has literally, not figuratively, laid down his life for the Jewish people on many occasions. I know of several death threats against him when he was hunting Nazi war criminals.”

But Sher’s work at the commission was not as widely admired. Both during and after his tenure, the commission came under attack from some survivor groups and congressmen for spending more money on administrative expenses than on payouts to survivors. The controversy was reported in the Forward, and in The Baltimore Sun and Los Angeles Times.

The insurance commission was formed in 1998 by survivor organizations, state insurance commissioners, representatives of Jewish groups, the Israeli government and European insurance companies including Germany’s Allianz, France’s Axa, Italy’s Generali and Switzerland’s Winterthur and Zurich. Funded by the companies, the commission seeks to resolve and pay claims by survivors and heirs of Nazi victims who contend companies refused to pay their families’ life insurance policies.

Recently, however, German insurers released a list of some 400,000 names of policyholders. These lists have been instrumental for those who have no proof or knowledge of their unpaid policies. Survivors’ advocates have pledged to pressure companies to disclose more names.

The Baltimore Sun, in an article on the commission’s administrative costs published on July 7, 2002, reported on Sher’s air-travel expenses. The newspaper claimed that commission financial records showed that in 1999 Sher spent $136,563 in travel expenses, mostly for travel to Europe. “Sher’s first-class or business-class airfare to Rome, Berlin and other cities often totaled $5,000 or more per trip,” the article stated.

Sources close to the commission told the Forward that Sher had allegedly carried out a misappropriation by improperly claiming reimbursement for his air-travel.

Sher first admitted his actions to Eagleburger, who regarded them as “probable improprieties” and placed Sher on “administrative leave” pending an investigation, the commission’s document states. Eagleburger then asked the commission’s legal counsel, Tom Howard, to conduct a “fact-finding investigation” and enlisted Judge Webster to review the case, according to the document.

Following Webster’s reply to Eagleburger, the document states, Eagleburger “accepted Mr. Sher’s resignation” effective June 20, 2002 and “obtained full and immediate restitution.”

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