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The 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund: cui bono?

By Jerry Mazza
Online Journal Associate Editor

Jun 22, 2007, 01:10

Thursday, June 14 -- I’m taking notes in Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein’s spacious courtroom atop the Daniel Patrick Moynihan United States Courthouse at 500 Pearl Street in New York. This as lawyers from United Air Lines, American Airlines, Boeing Corporation, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, World Trade Center Properties, et al, make a motion for a determination of applicable law and for dismissal of all punitive damage claims as well as certain government discovery in the 9/11 damage suits.

The fleet of high-priced lawyers fills half the paneled courtroom. A packed gallery fills the other half. Among the corporate legal fleet are a smaller number of lawyers for the remaining plaintiffs who did not take the 9/11 Victim Compensation money. One of plaintiffs’ lawyers, Greg Joseph, is noted to say, “Any trial is a good trial.”

The corporate lawyers parry and thrust in legalese with Judge Hellerstein. They seem to admire their own wit, deferring to his, his quips, assertions of power, interruptions and anecdotes. A certain sense of gravity seems lacking as the sad gray sky fills the huge windows, just a handful of blocks from the perished towers and their lost lives, which is what this is supposed to be about if I’m not mistaken.

Eligibility for the Victim Compensation Fund required victims’ “physical harm or death” as a result of one of the crashes, or being the personal representative of a deceased victim. But the hook, the big quid pro quo is the waiver of a claimant’s right to file suit if he or she filed for fund money. The moment he or she submitted an application for fund money, he or she could forget about a suit against the airlines or the government.

Also, the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund of 2001 was the last part of the three-part Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act of 2001 [ATSA) issued at President Bush’s order. It was issued only 12 days after the tragedy and most probably not closely read by most members of Congress who passed it.

Part one was a $10 billion dollar handout in federal credit instruments to air carriers. Part two was an additional $5 billion boost to compensate air carriers for direct losses, either from being grounded and/or incremental losses beginning September 11, 2001, ending December 31, 2001, as a direct result of the attacks.

Thus the airlines received a $15 billion subsidy to keep them from going under. There was just one stipulation calling for limiting pay raises to employees or officers whose total compensation exceeds $300,000.

If victims or survivors decided not to take the money, the law said they could “bring in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York an exclusive cause of action for damages based upon the substantive law, including choice of law principles, of the State in which the crash occurred unless such law was inconsistent with or preempted by Federal law.” In plain English, it meant they could file a lawsuit for damages right in this courthouse.

The man to evaluate all appeals was the fund’s special master, Kenneth R. Feinberg. He was appointed by then Attorney General John Ashcroft on November 26, 2001. In his Final Report of Fund activities, Feinberg said with no due modesty, “In my view, the Fund was an unqualified success: 97 percent of the families of deceased victims who might otherwise have pursued lawsuits for years have received compensation through the Fund. . . .

“In total, the Fund distributed over $7.049 billion to survivors of 2,880 persons killed in the September 11 attacks and to 2,680 individuals who were injured in the attacks or in the rescue efforts conducted thereafter. The average award for families of victims killed in the attacks exceeded $2 million. The average award for injured victims was nearly $400,000. . . .”

Bottom line: the airlines received over twice as much as 9/11 victims and their families.

As Truthout.org reported on December 23, 2003, the actual cut-off date of the two-year application period, “as many as 73 families see the process of U.S. government compensation as an attempt to protect those who should be held accountable for what they believe was mass murder. They ignored a midnight deadline last night, their last chance to apply for government cash. And today, they begin a new stage in an arduous odyssey and will sue their government, airlines and state and local authorities.”

Think of the consequences of an open trial of plaintiffs against the airlines and/or government. Think of the discovery, of all the facts which could used to prove those thousands of 9/11 deaths were murders, conceivably by home bodies with foreign allies. The cost would be the heads of the big kahunas of our government and their associates. Thus the $7.049 billion in Victim Fund’s payout was a small price to pay for the silence it produced.

Amazingly, after five and a half years, not one single victim’s case from 9/11 has even been heard in a court of law -- in spite of the fact that the US is known as a litigious society with an abundance of aggressive lawyers. Many thought the relatives of the 9/11 victims would go for justice and compensation in the courts. Not so, particularly under the pressure of the VCF.

As of March 20, Christopher Bollyn reported that Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein, who has overseen and handled all 9/11 victim lawsuits, said “that he wants the 58 or so remaining cases resolved as quickly as possible.” Bollyn added, “What this means is that he wants weary plaintiffs to negotiate with Sheila L. Birnbaum, the ‘special mediator’ for the court, and accept the money offered to them. This way, nearly all of the cases were resolved through out of court settlements.”

In fact, the most notable would-be litigant, Ellen Mariani, was harassed from the date of filing her original RICO suit on December 20, 2001, (via her then attorney, Phil Berg) against the Bush administration. For speaking out tirelessly about the need for a trial, for an investigation and discovery of the real facts, Mrs. Mariani was harassed until she was eventually replaced as administrator of her husband’s estate.

With the help of the Greenberg-Traurig law firm, the same firm that served Bush in the 2000 election, Mrs. Mariani’s step-daughter Lauren Peters was put in Ellen Mariani’s place as the estate administrator. Lauren Peters’ name also replaced Ellen Mariani’s on the latter’s landmark suit against United Airlines. A New York federal court UAL lawsuit had been cleverly waiting in the wings to replace Mrs. Mariani’s ground breaking lawsuit. Today, Mrs. Mariani remains a co-beneficiary of the yet-to-be-paid fund, a widow living on Social Security and under a gag order, which the government has violated with continual harassment.

Israeli connections to the events

Let us begin with Judge Hellerstein, who has long-standing Zionist connections and close family ties to the state of Israel. His wife, as Christopher Bollyn points out, “is a former senior vice president and current treasurer of a New York-based organization called AMIT. AMIT promotes Jewish immigration to Israel and stands for Americans for Israel and Torah. AMIT’s motto is “Building Israel -- One Child at a Time.”

Bollyn also points out that “all of the relatives’ wrongful death lawsuits, that is criminal cases against American Airlines or United Airlines or any of the foreign-owned airport security companies, namely Argenbright Security (British), Globe Aviation Services Corp. (Swedish), and Huntleigh USA Corp. (Israeli) have been handled by Hellerstein. In fact, all of the relatives’ wrongful death lawsuits, criminal cases against the airlines and their security companies were consolidated by the presiding judge into a negligence lawsuit, which, as a civil case, is much less likely to be argued or investigated in an open trial with a jury.

“In the case of at least one of these security defendants, Huntleigh USA, there would seem to be a serious conflict of interest for the judge [be]cause the airline security company who is responsible for the shocking security lapses at both the Boston and Newark airports on 9/11 is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Israeli company (ICTS), headed by Israelis with clear ties to Israel’s military intelligence agency, the Mossad.

“Menachem Atzmon, who was convicted in Israel in 1996 for campaign finance fraud, and his business partner Ezra Harel, covered management of security at the Boston and Newark airports when their company, ICTS, bought Huntleigh USA in 1999.”

UAL Flight 175 and AA II, which were the hit-planes for Towers One and Two, originated in Boston. UAL 93, the airliner that supposedly crashed in Pennsylvania, departed from Newark airport.

“Some victim’s families brought suits against Huntleigh, claiming the Israeli-owned airport security firm had been grossly negligent on 9/11. While these relatives have a right to discovery and to know what Huntleigh did or didn’t do to protect their loved ones on 9/11, Huntleigh was granted complete congressional protection in 2002 and will not be called to account for its actions on 9/11 in any US court.

“On July 26, 2002, the US House of Representatives passed the Homeland Security Bill and slipped in a last minute provision for complete corporate immunity for the three foreign-owned security companies. Likewise, the Senate voted to shield the three security companies from corporate responsibility on November 19, 2002. These congressional votes prevent any legal investigation to discovery into the security failures of these foreign companies on 9/11.”

Next, “Special Master Kenneth Feinberg’s legal firm is listed as one of the top ten supporters of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies for 2004-2005. The Institute is an Israel-based Zionist organization that supports the construction of the illegal wall of separation across Palestine.”

Feinberg was appointed by then Attorney General John Ashcroft, a dedicated conservative Christian-cum-Zionist sympathizer, backing groups such as Stand for Israel. Most notably, Ashcroft now runs a lobbying firm, whose most stellar client is Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI), Israel’s major military aerospace company. It hired the former US attorney general to help secure US government approval to sell an Israeli weapons system to the South Korean Air Force. They hired Ashcroft to raise their chances against an American-made system from Chicago-based Boeing Company.

Ironically, Ashcroft was born in Chicago. When he headed the Justice Department, his dual-citizenship Israeli-American assistant was Michael Chertoff, who directed the FBI non-investigation of the events of 9/11. Chertoff is now secretary of Homeland Security.

Sheila L. Birnbaum, the special mediator for Hellerstein, is a partner in Skadden Arps, one of the leading corporate law firms with business ties to Israel. Skadden Arps is one of the legal advisers to Israeli companies doing business in and raising capital outside of Israel. It offers bi-lingual English/Hebrew personnel as well.

Courtroom coda

After lunch, I return to the polished voices of United Airlines, American, Boeing, Hellerstein, et al. They continue the dialogue to avoid culpability via litigation from plaintiffs. The jocularity rises. Yet at some point, the lawyer for the plaintiffs stands to speak. In essence, he reminds Judge Hellerstein and the room that Congress created the Victims Compensation Fund, and it asked victims families to relinquish the right of bringing suit against the airlines or government in return for compensation. The lawyer wondered why Congress would ask that of the families, and if that was just? Of if it was an unfair exchange? The dialogue at this point took on a more serious, even intense tone. Reality had entered the discussion. So much so, that at some point two of the court clerks asked to speak with Judge Hellerstein in his chambers.

When Judge Hellerstein returned, he said that the plaintiffs would have a trial, but it would have to be bifurcated, that is, split in half. The liability cases would be conducted with the airlines. And only the damages cases would be heard in court. At that point, the notion that the cases would have to be “sanitized” passed loudly from one lawyer’s lips to another’s to the judge. Take from that what meanings or “evidence” you will.

Hellerstein added that he would name three cases for the remaining damages cases on Monday, June 25, to be “tried.” The judge reserved to himself the right to decide which cases to try. He said, “I want to settle as many cases as I can as soon as I can. That is my job.”

And that, at the end of the day, was the bottom line. Would it be a victory for some or more of the same for all? We’ll know soon enough. But don’t expect too many surprises in the continuation of this surreal if not tragic series of events.
Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer living in New York. Special thanks to Christopher Bollyn for his articles and research, quoted or paraphrased; thanks also to Marguerite Chandler for use of her notes taken in court.

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