The Ledger 15 March 2004
MIAMI (AP) -- The Justice Department has hardened its position on a Holocaust lawsuit claiming the U.S. Army plundered riches seized by Nazis from 800,000 Hungarian Jews and covered it up for decades.
In court Monday, government attorney Caroline Wolverton said she could not commit to mediation and would fight for dismissal of the lawsuit, which claims $50 million to $120 million in seized gold, jewels, art and other valuables were taken by Americans from a Nazi train they caught in 1945.
Last September, Assistant Attorney General Peter Keisler, Wolverton's boss and head of Justice's civil division, wrote U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., to say the department is committed to working with the Hungarian Holocaust survivors "to reach a full and fair resolution of their claims."
After the hearing, Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said, "What she said is where we are right now, and we have no comment with regard to the correspondence between the assistant attorney general and Sen. Santorum."
Amy Hybels, a spokeswoman for Santorum, said, "We are looking into what transpired today." His office got involved at the request of constituents Andrew Katona and his wife, of Bala Cynwyd, Pa.
About 30,000 Hungarian Jews and their survivors are asking for trial on their class-action claims of large-scale looting and official denials that the train even existed until a 1999 report on Holocaust assets by a commission named by President Clinton.
"The allegations in the complaint are ones that I don't think any American would be proud of," said U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz. "The practical question is, 'What do you do now 60 years later, and what would be a fair resolution?'."
Wolverton responded, "The United States has good grounds to dispute these allegations." When the judge asked for suggestions for a mediator, Wolverton said, "I don't know that I have the authority to commit to agreeing to mediation."
The judge noted mediation is mandatory under congressional directives and U.S. Supreme Court rules.
The court hearing was held as the legal dispute intensifies over claims in the 172-page lawsuit. In a procedural quirk, the U.S. government has not filed a formal response to the suit originally filed in 2001.
The judge asked both sides to exchange information by Wednesday. Meanwhile, reports from expert witnesses analyzing the train dispute are due Friday, and survivors are set to begin six weeks of depositions Monday.
The judge said she hoped in early September to consider Justice's request for dismissal based on a procedural question of jurisdiction.
"The decision to fight this on jurisdictional grounds would appear to be a policy decision by the Department of Justice," said plaintiff's attorney Samuel Dubbin. He told the judge he thought mediation was vital.
"You've not been able to move them this far," the judge observed. "They need to see the plaintiffs in the flesh. It need to become a human case."
Attorneys for the survivors have poured over papers in the National Archives as well as confidential files in Clinton's presidential archives to research the case.
The judge told attorneys she thought is was "very critical" to videotape the depositions of the aging survivors, noting an appeal that could take two years to resolve is likely after she decides the dismissal motion.
Hungarian Jews claim the United States illegally seized, sold or distributed gold, jewels, 1,200 paintings, silver, china, porcelain, 3,000 Oriental carpets and other heirlooms seized by the Nazis from their households.
The families claim a train with 29 boxcars moved from Hungary to Austria to avoid advancing Soviet troops days after Germany's surrender and was intercepted by U.S. soldiers in May 1945.
Ownership was marked on many items, and many families still have receipts for the seized property, their lawyers said.
The United States agreed in 1946 to return all looted Hungarian property but later reclassified the train's treasures as "captured enemy property." Much was sold at New York auctions in 1948 to help defray the costs of Jewish restoration programs in Europe. http://www.theledger.com/