Firemans Fund on hot seat at S.F. Holocaust hearing

Fireman's Fund put its state insurance license in jeopardy with a cantankerous appearance at last week's Holocaust-era insurance hearing in San Francisco.

The Marin County-based insurance giant, testifying for its parent company, German insurer Allianz, was accused of "continued obfuscation, foot-dragging and legal maneuvering" by Dan Edwards, California's deputy insurance commissioner.

"Instead of being cooperative and moving to try to resolve this issue, Allianz has risen to the top of those [companies] practicing the highest degree of foot-dragging," Edwards said during a break in the proceedings on Thursday of last week.

Allianz was one of eight insurance companies subpoenaed to report on readiness to comply with California's new Holocaust Registry Law. A hearing was held in Los Angeles a day before the one in San Francisco.

Some of the European-based companies were represented at the hearings by officials from their U.S. affiliates. Allianz, for example, was represented by Fireman's Fund, which employs about 4,000 people in California, including some 2,500 at its national headquarters in Novato.

By April 6, insurance companies that did business in Europe between 1920 and 1945 must submit a list of policyholders who perished in the Holocaust or survived concentration camps if the firms, or their subsidiaries, want to continue to do business in California.

Many of those policies have never been properly paid out, so the lists will help California survivors and heirs get their overdue claims honored. If survivors and heirs can't be found, the remaining proceeds are to be contributed to a nonprofit organization and passed on to Holocaust survivors.

Chuck Quackenbush, California's insurance commissioner, has pledged to yank the state licenses of insurers if they don't comply. "I will lower the hammer on you if you are not going to comply with our law," a fiery Quackenbush told an attorney for Italian insurers Assicurazioni Generali during the Los Angeles hearing.

The San Francisco hearing was held at the California Department of Insurance offices on Fremont Street. The aim was to determine if the companies in question are willing and prepared to comply.

Four of the five companies testifying in San Francisco told a three-member investigative panel that they were on the road to making Holocaust-era policyholder lists available, a process that many claimed isn't simple. Records from 55 to 80 years ago are not easy to find and compile, the companies said.

During the hearing, panel members openly praised representatives from the Swiss-based Winterthur and the French-based AXA for flying to San Francisco to report on their progress. AXA and Munich Re appeared on their own accord, while Winterthur, Swiss Re and Allianz had to be subpoenaed.

"Winterthur should be applauded for their posture today and leadership. They were very cooperative," Edwards said of the company, which has a U.S. affiliate called Winterthur International American Insurance Co.

"We come here with an open mind and I am not trying to hide anything," Phillipe Ferras, an executive with AXA, told the panel. AXA does business in California under the same name.

While some of the companies might have simply been saying what the panel wanted to hear — very little evidence of concrete progress was required — Allianz representatives didn't seem to want to play that game. When asked if Allianz is going to comply with California's law, Janet Kloenhamer, senior vice president and general counsel for Fireman's Fund, said, "I do not have the answer to that question."

Steve Weinstein, a Fireman's Fund lawyer, snapped at the panel when queried about Holocaust-era policyholder lists, saying, "The data you're talking about is data we do not have access to."

And during her opening statements, Kleonhamer said that although Fireman's Fund and Allianz plan to comply with the law, "I am not authorized to speak for Allianz on what they are preparing for the statute."

However, that was the main purpose of the hearings: to report on a company's readiness to comply.

The panel criticized Fireman's Fund for not having that information, and for not sending Peter Lefkin, senior vice president of government affairs, to the hearing, even though he was reportedly in the hall before the hearing began. Lefkin, who works out of the company's Washington, D.C., office, has been very involved with an international commission to resolve Holocaust-era claims.

Fred Kaplan, part of the three-person panel that questioned the insurance company representatives and lawyers during the hearings, blasted Fireman's Fund for not providing any concrete information.

"We don't believe Fireman's Fund has complied with the subpoena," Kaplan said during the hearing, "because we don't believe Fireman's Fund has sent their most knowledgeable person."

Quackenbush and other state insurance officials met this week and were "considering various options," according to a department spokesperson.

Fireman's Fund could draw a fine for disobeying the subpoena, but it's unlikely to have its license revoked before the April 6 deadline. "I'd like the law to stand on its own," Edwards said, adding that Allianz could be subpoenaed for another hearing.

The water was similarly hot for Generali a day earlier in Los Angeles. In a testy exchange with Chris Carnicelli, Generali's U.S. chief, Quackenbush said, "On April 6, you will provide us with a list or you are going to leave the state."

Carnicelli said he "respectfully" disagreed with Quackenbush. He said Generali had already turned over to the Yad Vashem Holocaust study center in Israel a list of 98,000 policyholders to determine if they were Holocaust victims.

He said Generali might eventually make that list available to California authorities, but that first his company wants to study the constitutionality of the new law.

Along similar lines, Kleonhamer said Allianz is cooperating with an international commission helping process Holocaust-era insurance claims.

That commission's chairman, former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, and President Clinton's representative on Holocaust issues, Undersecretary of the Treasury Stuart Eizenstat, both criticized Quackenbush for holding the California hearings last week.

They maintained that Allianz and four other cooperating companies should be excused from testifying because of their willing participation in the international commission.

Quackenbush, who helped create the commission and is also a member, said he felt proceedings in California needed a jump-start because the international commission was acting too slowly.

That extra push came Oct. 8, when the Holocaust registry law written by Assemblyman Wally Knox (D-Los Angeles) was unanimously passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Gray Davis.

For decades, World War II survivors and relatives of those killed by the Nazis have attempted to get payment on insurance policies, mainly life insurance and some property. About a dozen companies have been sued in California, New York and other states for allegedly acting in bad faith by failing to honor the claims, or by considering the claims paid when insurance company funds were surrendered to the Nazis.

With the legal pressure on, three Dutch companies reached agreements with Quackenbush last week, shortly before the Los Angeles hearing got underway. Aegon, ING and Fortis pledged to supply the required lists within 60 days and agreed to contribute a total of $4.2 million to a humanitarian fund for about 22,000 Holocaust survivors living in California.

ING has an American affiliate called The Netherlands Insurance Co. and Fortis does business in the United States as Fortis Insurance, but Aegon has an even more recognized American affiliate, especially in San Francisco: Transamerica.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.