Company’s interest in Purple Line draws scrutiny for parent firm’s Holocaust history

The majority owner of a Paris-based company competing to build and operate the light-rail Purple Line between Montgomery and Prince George’s counties was the target of a Maryland law requiring that firms disclose any ties to the Holocaust when bidding on rail contracts.

Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français (SNCF) owns 70 percent of Keolis, part of one of the four private consortiums recently chosen by the Maryland Department of Transportation to bid on a Purple Line public-private partnership. Historians say SNCF, which is the government-owned French railway, was paid to transport 76,000 Jews and other prisoners to Nazi death camps in World War II. Some Holocaust survivors say SNCF shouldn’t benefit from U.S. government contracts until it pays reparations to the thousands of people it delivered to Nazi camps in stifling, unsanitary cattle cars or their survivors.

SNCF’s chairman issued a formal apology to Holocaust victims in 2011.

At stake is a 35-year contract valued at more than $6 billion to design, build, operate, maintain and help finance the $2.2 billion Purple Line. It would be one of the single biggest contracts ever awarded in Maryland and the state’s first public-private partnership on a transit project.

Leo Bretholz, a 92-year-old Baltimore resident, escaped from an SNCF rail car when he was 21. He lost 20 relatives in the Holocaust.

Map of the proposed Purple Line

“It is reprehensible for this company, which put me on a deportation train bound for Auschwitz and demanded payment to do so, to now seek public contracts — paid for by my tax dollars — while steadfastly refusing to pay reparations and to do what is morally right,” Bretholz said in a written statement.

It is unclear whether the 2011 Maryland law would apply to the Purple Line bidding process, which is scheduled to award a contract by early 2015. The law was written specifically to address a 2011 bid by Keolis to operate two MARC commuter rail lines, according to two people who participated in the law’s passage.

The law specifies that companies “that had direct involvement in the deportation of victims” to Nazi camps provide World War II records when bidding on MARC contracts. It applies to companies partially owned by such corporations.

The 16-mile Purple Line, which would connect Bethesda with New Carrollton via streetcars, would be owned by the Maryland Transit Administration. However, it would not be part of the agency’s MARC system.

The law does not prevent companies with ties to the Holocaust from bidding on, or winning, state contracts.

Keolis officials have previously said the company, which was founded in the late 1990s, had nothing to do with World War II. This week, the company referred calls to SNCF.

Alain Leray, president of SNCF America in Rockville, said he read the Maryland law to be “very specific” to MARC contracts. He said the Maryland Department of Transportation did not raise any concerns about Keolis’s SNCF ties during the initial Purple Line bidding process.

Leray said SNCF abided by the law when Keolis bid on a contract to operate and maintain MARC’s Brunswick and Camden lines by putting its World War II archives — he said there are 1.3 million documents — online. The Maryland state archivist certified that the online archives met the law’s requirements. The five-year contract went to the lowest bidder, Bombardier Transportation, for $204 million. Keolis’s $218 million bid was second-lowest.

“I understand their feelings, and I respect their feelings,” ­Leray said of Holocaust survivors. “It’s a highly emotional issue. . . . If it’s a historical issue, let’s deal with it. If it’s a commercial issue, let’s deal with it. But mixing one with the other doesn’t seem like a good idea.”

Officials for the Maryland Transit Administration declined an interview and referred questions about the law’s relevance to the Purple Line to the state attorney general’s office.

“Keolis was short-listed, not selected” for the contract, MTA spokeswoman Paulette Austrich wrote in an e-mail. “Any firm selected will have to comply with state law.”

David Paulson, a spokesman for the Maryland attorney general’s office, said the office is “looking into” whether the 2011 law would apply to the Purple Line bids.

Maryland is believed to be the only state that requires companies to disclose their Holocaust ties in rail bids. The law is part of a years-long effort by Holocaust survivors groups to seek reparations from entities that aided the Nazi regime. Some survivors have protested previous SNCF interest in high-speed rail proposals in Florida and California. Legislation that would allow Holocaust victims to sue SNCF for damages in U.S. courts has stalled in Congress.

Keolis first drew scrutiny in the Washington region in 2010, when a Holocaust survivors group protested its winning of an $85 million contract to operate Virginia Railway Express trains, its first U.S. rail contract. Earlier this month, Keolis won a $2.68 billion contract to operate its second U.S. system, Boston’s commuter rail. SNCF has no U.S. rail contracts, Leray said.

Maryland Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore), the lead sponsor on the 2011 state legislation, said he has no plans to try to expand the law to cover Purple Line bidders. He said the law served its purpose by requiring SNCF, as part of its unsuccessful MARC bid, to put its World War II archives online, which will help Holocaust researchers.

Rosenberg said he believes SNCF has a “moral and legal obligation” to pay reparations to Holocaust survivors and their families. But he said he does not plan to seek legislation to require that.

“I don’t know as a legal matter whether you could prohibit them from bidding” on state contracts until reparations are paid, he said.

Leray said French law permits only the government, not the state-owned rail company, to pay reparations for deportations that occurred under the Nazi-backed Vichy government during World War II. He said the French government has paid “billions” in reparations to Holocaust victims.

Aaron J. Greenfield, an Annapolis lawyer working pro bono for the Coalition for Holocaust Rail Justice, said the group of 650 people who survived SNCF’s World War II trains is exploring legislative options to require SNCF to pay more if it wants U.S. rail contracts.

“It’s not about transparency anymore,” Greenfield said. “It’s about accountability.”

Katherine Shaver is a transportation and development reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 1997 and has covered crime, courts, education and local government but most prefers writing about how people get — or don’t get — around the Washington region.
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