By MENACHEM Z. ROSENSAFT

ABOUT 158,000 Holocaust survivors have received a meager $1,450 each from the $1.25 billion settlement of a class action brought in their names against Swiss banks. Now Burt Neuborne, a court-appointed lawyer who had claimed for years to be representing the survivors pro bono, wants to be paid more than $4.75 million for his services.

As the son of two survivors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, I am outraged. As a lawyer, I am appalled.

By Neuborne’s own written account, U.S. District Judge Edward R. Korman asked him in early 1997 to “serve in a pro bono capacity as cocounsel for the plaintiffs” in the Swiss Bank litigation.

Two years later, the court appointed him as lead settlement counsel – and Neuborne allowed everyone concerned to believe he was still serving free of charge. Indeed, Judge Korman himself wrote in a July 2000 opinion, “Numerous lawyers, including plaintiffs’ lead settlement counsel [again, that’s Neuborne] have waived all attorneys’ fees.”

If Neuborne was no longer acting pro bono, but instead intended to charge a fee for his services, he had an ethical and professional responsibility as a member of the bar to promptly advise both the court and his clients accordingly. He did nothing of the sort.

Instead, he stated categorically in The Nation in October 2000 that “Every penny in the $1.25 billion Swiss bank case will go to Holocaust victims,” and ridiculed as “absurd” another lawyer’s $4 million fee request. And, as recently as September 2005, Neuborne boasted to a federal judge in Miami that “I am the lead settlement lawyer in the Swiss case in which I served without fee now for almost seven years.”

It was therefore a tremendous shock when, last December, he submitted a multimillion-dollar fee application to the court. Was this a change of heart, or had he always intended to enrich himself at the expense of Holocaust survivors?

Note that Neuborne is no ordinary ambulance-chaser. A former legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, he receives a substantial salary as a tenured professor at New York University Law School and legal director of NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice.

Yet he now wants to be paid at least $700 an hour on top of that for 6,878.5 hours he claims to have spent on the Swiss Bank case. Well, at least $700 an hour – he asked the court to consider paying him “a multiplier for excellence and augmentation of the settlement fund.”

That’s right, he says $4.75 million is the minimum he should be awarded.

No one should be expected to work for free. At the same time, it is grotesque when a lawyer tries to profiteer shamelessly from efforts to provide a modicum of justice to the victims of the greatest crime against humanity in history. (For that matter, Neuborne has already pocketed $4.4 million from a settlement of Holocaust-related claims against German corporations.)

Every dollar awarded to Neuborne by the court is a dollar less available to provide health care to elderly survivors who worry about the high cost of keeping their homes warm this winter and whether they’ll be able to pay for both medicine and food. The more than $4.75 million Neuborne demands could be far better spent to improve the quality of life of the men and women Neuborne purports to represent and enable them to live out their remaining years in dignity.

There comes a point when even greed becomes unseemly. U.S. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein, who is reviewing Neuborne’s fee application, should reject it out of hand and send the good professor back to NYU to teach – or at least to take a course in legal ethics.

It is bad enough that most Holocaust survivors have received only pitifully inadequate compensation for their suffering. They shouldn’t also have to endure the insult of watching a lawyer whom they did not choose walk away with a windfall of millions of dollars at their expense.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft, a lawyer, is the founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.

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