New leadership was supposed to calm the long-running feuds at the World Jewish Congress, but the past is being brought forward again by a set of lawsuits filed this week against a former top official at the organization.
The WJC and its former president, Edgar Bronfman, filed separate civil suits in New York State Supreme Court against Israel Singer, the troubled body’s one-time secretary general.
The new lawsuits, filed August 17, stem in large part from a 2004 New York State attorney general’s office investigation of financial mismanagement at the WJC. Bronfman’s suit seeks to reclaim more than $500,000 in loans allegedly made to Singer to cover legal costs associated with the investigation. The WJC suit alleges that Singer owes the organization some $20,000 worth of computer, phone and fax equipment as well as 450,000 American Express points earned on WJC credit cards, which the attorney general required Singer to spend on WJC-related matters.
Singer, Bronfman’s longtime confidant, was abruptly fired from his post in March. Bronfman later announced that he removed Singer because of his alleged embezzlement of funds. Singer has denied the charges.
Bronfman’s firing of Singer came at the end of two years of vicious internecine fighting at the WJC. In May, Bronfman announced that he would step down; in June, cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder was elected to replace him. Lauder ran for office promising to bring a new beginning to the WJC, but the latest round of lawsuits signals that Lauder has struggled to dispense with the old feuds.
In an e-mail to the Forward, Singer called the new lawsuits “frivolous,” saying they are “without merit.” He also attributed their origins to the organization’s controversial secretary general, Stephen Herbits, who is set to leave his post September 9.
“I imagine that Herbits is angry that he has been asked to leave, and he is striking out at old targets in his frustration.”
Herbits is a close business associate of the Bronfmans and was previously responsible for filing a controversial defamation lawsuit against a leading critic and former official of the WJC, Isi Leibler. That lawsuit was criticized as a vindictive measure, and Herbits eventually withdrew the lawsuit and apologized for it.
Herbits was the force behind the new WJC lawsuit, which is particularly controversial because it comes just a few weeks before Herbits is supposed to leave the organization. Moreover, there is some question about whether Herbits informed Lauder about them. Michael Schneider, who is set to replace Herbits as WJC’s secretary general, told the Forward that Lauder was not informed of the lawsuit.
“This was a little bit of a snafu,” said Schneider, who accepted the new post last week.
In an interview with the Forward, Herbits struck back, saying that he had informed Lauder of the lawsuit.
“On July 19, 2007, Mr. Lauder met with me and the WJC’s attorney in his office to discuss, amongst other things, this lawsuit at length. Mr. Lauder expressed his support for the lawsuit, and we proceeded with it,” Herbits said.
Herbits told the Forward that the WJC’s not-for-profit status could be compromised legally if Singer does not pay back his debts to Bronfman and to the organization.
Leibler, a longtime critic of both Singer and Herbits, said he was surprised that the suit came so soon before Herbits’s departure.
“I’m aware of the fact that they’ve been mulling this over for a long time, but I thought that after the election the new executive would be handling this, not Mr. Herbits,” Leibler told the Forward.