France’s state-owned railway, accused of being complicit in transporting Jews and others to concentration camps during World War II, is fighting back against efforts in Congress to allow Holocaust survivors to sue its American subsidiary in U.S. courts.
This month, Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français subsidiary SNCF America Inc. has brought in reinforcements to defeat the bill, called the Holocaust Rail Justice Act. In total, the SNCF now has a half-dozen Washington-area lobby shops working on the issue. The latest, Hogan Lovells, notified Congress on July 13 that it is providing lobbying help to the group.
The SNCF lobbyists are up against a team from Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, which is lobbying pro bono for its clients, about 250 Holocaust survivors and their relatives in the United States.
“We and the survivors are very optimistic that this legislation will continue moving forward,” said Akin counsel Raphael Prober, who leads the firm’s Holocaust team.
The six groups representing SNCF have received at least $270,000 from the company so far this year, according to congressional records.
The lobbying efforts of SNCF and Akin Gump are centered on legislation that was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate in March 2011. The measure would except railways used by the Nazis — who occupied France during much of the war — from the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a law that limits the suits that can be brought in U.S. courts against a nation or an instrumentality of a foreign government.
“It’s unfortunate that SNCF isn’t simply stepping up and being held accountable for this,” Prober said.
Although the French government has reparations and restitution programs for Holocaust survivors, SNCF itself hasn’t paid them any compensation for its role in the atrocity. The company has apologized for its part in the Holocaust. But SNCF has said the Nazis forced it to transport Jews and other individuals.
SNCF sent the Senate Judiciary Committee a 112-page document detailing its history, efforts to ensure that the Holocaust isn’t forgotten and information on French compensation programs, after Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) held a hearing last month. Schumer, who introduced the Holocaust Rail Justice Act in the Senate, said during the hearing that the bill “may be the only way that survivors can obtain the reparations they so clearly deserve from SNCF.”
SNCF officials, and their many advocates, have remained largely mum about why the company is using six lobby shops. Lobbyists for the company said they have been on Capitol Hill sharing information about the company’s past.
“It’s primarily been an education effort,” said Hogan partner W. Michael House, who is lobbying for SNCF with firm partner Robert Kyle and associate Michael Bell. House said his work for the company is “going well.”
SNCF spokesman Jerry Ray said in a brief written statement: “We have fielded a senior well-balanced team with complementary expertise.”
Bernard Emsellem, SNCF senior vice president for corporate social responsibility, provided a bit more context in the company’s June 25 submission to the Senate committee. He said that the French compensation programs “address the injustices of the entire French State, its entities, and its people during that era” and have been upheld by U.S., French and European courts. “This legislation risks supplanting these well-established programs, creating inequities and substituting the U.S. Courts over established French programs,” he wrote. “Any bill that endangers the reciprocity of state immunities should be argued on facts, not misrepresentation.”
Hogan is one of two law firms lobbying for SNCF, according to congressional records. Kelley Drye & Warren is the other. Kelley senior international trade/tax adviser Gregory Mastel, the firm’s lobbyist on the SNCF account, previously lobbied for the company at Dutko Grayling, which in 2010 became the first firm to advocate for the railway. Advanced Strategies, Capitol Counsel and Shockey Scofield Solutions are the other firms that lobby for SNCF.
Mastel, whose SNCF lobbying registration filing says he’s following “judicial transportation-related legislation relevant to client’s interests,” said his work for the company is a “very information-intensive exercise.” He added: “It is a very complicated issue.”
Congressional committees haven’t yet voted on the bill, and although hearings have already been held in the Senate and House, no votes are currently scheduled.
For Akin — and for the firm’s clients — time is of the essence. “As my 92nd birthday approaches, I only hope that the many dedicated lawmakers who have worked so diligently to move this legislation forward will redouble their efforts to pass this legislation during this Congress,” Holocaust survivor Leo Bretholz said in written testimony prepared for the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last month. “Seventy years is far too long to wait for a company to accept responsibility for the death and suffering it caused. I fear that I might not be able to wait much longer.”
Andrew Ramonas can be contacted at email@example.com.