Holocaust-era insurers want California law thrown out

A senior attorney for the state Department of Insurance fears the political mess surrounding Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush will seep into an upcoming hearing on California's Holocaust Registry Law.

Insurance companies under pressure from the new law are asking that the law be declared unconstitutional at a Tuesday hearing in a U.S. District Court in Sacramento.

That hearing wouldn't appear to be linked to Quackenbush's main fight these days — the fight for his political life. But perhaps it is.

"It wouldn't surprise me if the companies try to take advantage of his problems," Leslie Tick, senior California Department of Insurance counsel, said last Friday. "But I think the judge wouldn't consider it relevant in this case."

Tick said some of the papers filed in the case have pointed out Quackenbush's "other woes."

The state insurance commissioner is accused of letting insurance companies escape some $3.3 billion in fines after the 1994 Northridge earthquake by paying about $12 million into a foundation.

Pointing to that as well as to the alleged misuse of those funds, the Los Angeles Times and San Jose Mercury News have called for his resignation.

Quackenbush, who is one of only two Republicans elected to senior statewide office in California, is under heavy fire in the state capital.

Meanwhile, his once-aggressive efforts to corral Holocaust-era insurance companies seem to have fallen by the wayside.

"He's got so many problems I don't think there's even time to think about this," said William J. Lowenberg, a longtime San Francisco Jewish community leader and a survivor activist. "No one seems to know what's going to happen because of his situation."

Last winter, Quackenbush launched a major push to get Holocaust-era insurance companies to disclose their European policy-holder lists from 1920 through 1945.

Getting them to do so would enhance the efforts of policy-holders and heirs to collect unpaid life insurance and property claims. An estimated 22,000 survivors live in California.

According to the new law, AB 600, a company that didn't produce such lists could be stripped of its license to do business in California.

However, some of the companies that Quackenbush and his department are pursuing claim the law is unconstitutional, and that their civil rights have been violated. Four lawsuits will be heard Tuesday.

"It violates our constitution's foreign commerce act, which dictates that only the federal government can regulate commerce with foreign nations and foreign companies," said Paula Nowakowski, a spokesperson for the American Insurance Association.

The AIA is representing about 80 companies, including Fireman's Fund and Farmer's Insurance, which are under the control of five parent companies that did significant business in Europe before World War II.

Three other major European insurers have filed their own lawsuits against the law.

If the judge rules in favor of the insurance companies, it will be a major and perhaps fatal blow to the state's Holocaust Registry Law.

The state will have no leverage in compelling insurers to cooperate and release policy-holder lists.

"If the insurance companies prevail, it's going to be a sad day for survivors in California," said Jack Mahan, the spokesman for the California Holocaust Insurance Settlement Alliance.

Mahan was hardly mollified by a press release from the AIA that read: "While we deeply regret that we were forced to take this legal action, it will in no way affect the vigilant efforts of our members to resolve Holocaust-era insurance claims."

He said the lawsuit was "just one more outrageous, abominable behavior on the part of insurance companies. Their tactic is to delay resolving this issue."

Each lawsuit names Quackenbush as a defendant, which Tick said is "technically appropriate" even though he is merely trying to enforce what was approved by California legislators last year.

A media liaison in Quackenbush's office said he doubted the insurance chief will attend Tuesday's hearing in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California.

Tick said the department has filed a motion to dismiss.

"There shouldn't be any lawsuits because there is nothing at issue here," Tick contended. "No company has been threatened with having its license suspended. All of these actions are premature."

Actually, the department's lack of action is a sore point with State Representative Wally Knox (D-L.A.), the author of AB 600.

He recently sent a letter to state Attorney General Bill Lockyer demanding that the law is enforced.

The law allowed Quackenbush to begin yanking licenses on April 6.

In the letter, Knox accused the insurance department with making a "secret, possibly illegal agreement with the insurance companies to delay enforcement of the law while the companies sue to block it."

Quackenbush issued a statement acknowledging the agreement, but he denied it was secret.

"We agreed in court-filed documents to defer initiating regulatory action until after the court ruled," Quackenbush said.

Even the three Dutch companies — Aegon, ING and Fortis — that are allegedly cooperating with California are not in full compliance.

Aegon, ING and Fortis agreed last winter to turn over policy-holder lists and donate $4.2 million to a humanitarian foundation.

However, a California Senate panel last month voted to close the door on foundations formed by the insurance commissioner.

Moreover, the Dutch companies have provided incomplete lists so far, and the money has yet to come in, Mahan said.

A potential argument next week is that the Dutch companies are being treated easier by state insurance regulators because they agreed to donate the $4.2 million. It could be painted as resembling the foundation scandal in the earthquake insurance quagmire.

That line of thinking was presented by Knox in his letter to Lockyer.

Knox's criticism of Quackenbush creates a weird situation: The author of AB 600 and the companies suing to declare the law unconstitutional are each railing against Quackenbush.

As are many others.

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.