9/11's False Elvis

The New York Times recently published a profile of Alvin K. Hellerstein, the judge charged with overseeing the litigation stemming from the 9/11 World Trade Center attack. In it the judge was cited for his empathy towards the victims’ families and his commitment to transparency, when in fact just the opposite has been true in the wrongful death cases. One WTC responder has even gone so far as to glowingly refer to Hellerstein as the “Elvis of the 9/11 community.”

Legal experts believe that the judge may see his handling of the 9/11 litigation as his legacy. There is evidence to support that when you see how often he has been cited in the press, saying that he has a very strong policy in favor of public records and accountability. He’s also said, with reference to the property cases, that he would prefer more open records and that he might even consider unsealing them.

It would appear that the good judge certainly talks the talk, but does he walk the walk or do his rulings reveal that his comments are more specious rhetoric than a true commitment to transparency?

Let’s examine what he has said versus what he has done in the 9/11 wrongful death litigation and compare that to his comments and recent reporting.

Throughout the process Judge Hellerstein has mouthed his obligation to provide the plaintiffs (victims’ families) with a trial if they so desired. But what does the record show? At the moment it shows that 92 of 95 cases have been settled with confidentiality agreements which in effect allow the aviation defendants to buy silence. Despite the fact that the plaintiffs have consistently pushed for an open trial, delays and pressure from the judge have resulted in them becoming discouraged and settling, just to put the whole 9/11 horror behind them.

To substantiate this assessment one only has to look at the judge’s own words and listen to the comments of the victims’ families.

In September 2007 it was reported that the 9/11 families were fuming at Judge Hellerstein for his callous comments about “money being the universal lubricant,”encouraging them to give up their day in court, if the price was right. His comments angered the plaintiffs who wanted to hold the airlines accountable for the ease with which 19 of 19 hijackers successfully bypassed security on 9/11. The family of Sara Low, a flight attendant killed on American 11, even pressed for a public archive of information uncovered in discovery.

Mike Low, Sara’s father said, “It bothers me a great deal that someone in charge of this trial has become so cynical. He can’t understand our loss. He sees the solution in a very cold and pragmatic way – in dollars and cents. He thinks everybody should take the money and go away.” So much for Judge Hellerstein’s supposed empathy for the victims’ families!

The judge has had several opportunities during the wrongful death litigation to modify or lift the March 2004 protective order, thereby opening the door to a 9/11 public archive. He has ruled against those motions every time. If the judge opts for transparency at all, he favors unsealing the dollar amounts of the property settlements so he can take credit for the monetary resolutions as his legacy. Unfortunately, he keeps secret what the 9/11 families have fought hardest for, which is sunshine on the evidence of what really happened that day. This judge is making the proceedings all about himself, not the heroes who died on 9/11, whose families walked away from a no fault Victims Compensation Fund (VCF) to unearth the truth. So much for his commitment to transparency!

In March this year, Alyson Low, Sara’s sister said, “Our judicial system very much favors Goliath over David.” She emphasized that the family’s goal from the start was to go to trial so the public could learn, with no political filters, about the depth and breadth of the negligence that led to Sara’s death. She accused Judge Hellerstein of putting up roadblocks to delay any hope of a trial. So much for his obligation to provide the plaintiffs with their day in court!

Judge Hellerstein may in fact see the 9/11 litigation as his legacy, but what we see in the wrongful death litigation does not reflect his supposed commitment to transparency or empathy for the victims’ families, nor does it demonstrate his willingness to provide the plaintiffs with a trial.

We’ve all seen those sorry looking Elvis impersonators. I’m afraid that, when it comes to the wrongful death litigation, the “Elvis of the 9/11 community” may be one of those. Nothing more than an impersonator and fraud. That is part of his legacy as things now stand.

The 9/11 wrongful death docket is still open. Perhaps there is time for the judge to make his actions match his words in this regard. I hope so. Elvis is watching.

The author is a retired Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Special Agent who has been active in support of the 9/11 victims’ families in the wrongful death litigation.