Md. Holocaust bills targeting rail bidder would ‘complicate’ French talks, U.S. official says

March 18, 2014

Two Maryland bills that would block a Purple Line bidder until its French parent company pays Holocaust reparations would significantly “complicate” U.S.-French talks over such payments, according to the State Department’s lead negotiator.

The potential to interfere in the bilateral talks deals another blow to the legislative measures.

The bills would require the government-owned French railway, Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français (SNCF), to compensate people it transported to Nazi death camps during World War II, or their families, before Keolis North America, which SNCF has a 70 percent stake in, could win a contract to build and operate the proposed light-rail line spanning Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Last week, a top Federal Transit Administration attorney said the bills would jeopardize a recommended $900 million federal grant considered critical to the line’s $2.37 billion construction. The attorney said the legislation would violate federal procurement law requiring open competition.

Stuart Eizenstat, a Washington lawyer serving as special adviser on Holocaust issues to Secretary of State John F. Kerry, said Tuesday that the legislation comes as the French are “neogtiating in good faith.”

“Give us a chance,” Eizenstat said. “We’re moving apace. It’s not useful in the midst of this to sort of jam the French when they’re really trying to be forthcoming.”

Eizenstat said French officials are aware of the Maryland legislation, but “No one likes to negotiate with a gun to their head.”

Eizenstat first voiced his concerns in an interview broadcast Saturday on WYPR, Baltimore’s National Public Radio station.

Historians say about 76,000 Jews and other Holocaust victims were deported on SNCF trains en route to extermination camps in Germany and Poland. All but about 2,000 of them were killed.

Keolis is part of one of four groups of private firms recently chosen by the Maryland Department of Transportation to bid on a public-private partnership to design, build, operate, maintain and help finance a Purple Line. The partnership, with an estimated value of more than $6 billion, would be one of the largest government contracts ever in Maryland.

Holocaust survivors, including some Maryland residents, have said SNCF shouldn’t benefit from a contract funded with their tax money until all people deported on its trains receive reparations as a sign of ultimate responsibility. SNCF officials have expressed “regret” over the railway’s participation in the Holocaust but say the camp transports were mandated by the Nazis under France’s collaborationist Vichy government.

Neither Holocaust bill made it out of committee before the Monday “crossover” deadline. Bills that have not been approved by either the House or Senate and been sent to the other chamber by that deadline generally have a lesser chance at passing. The Maryland legislative session ends in early April.

Del. Kirill Reznik (D-Montgomery), sponsor of the House bill, said Tuesday he “respectfully disagrees” with Eizenstat that the legislation would complicate the reparations negotiations. In fact, he said, he believes it will encourage the French to sign on to a U.S. agreement, years after U.S. Holocaust victims began seeking compensation in an unsuccessful lawsuit in 2000.

“Suddenly the Purple Line [bid] competition is coming up and there’s significant revenue for any rail company,” Reznik said. “Suddenly, 18 months ago, when Keolis became interested in this contract, there was interest in reparations talks again.”

Reznik said Akin Gump lawyers working pro bono for the Coalition for Holocaust Rail Justice, which has advocated for SNCF to pay reparations, have determined the legislation wouldn’t threaten a Purple Line’s federal funding. Federal procurement law, they say, requires that a company’s “integrity” be considered.

Reznik has said he would amend his proposal, if necessary, to prevent putting a Purple Line’s federal funding at risk.

French officials say the government has paid more than $6 billion in reparations since 1948 to Holocaust victims, including to people who were deported to Nazi extermination camps on SNCF trains. The program pays an average of 25,000 to 30,000 euros (about $35,000 to $42,000) annually to people who were deported on SNCF trains, and about 8,000 euros ($11,000) annually to surviving spouses and orphans, a U.S. official said.

However, the payments have not covered people who settled in the United States after World War II because the U.S. does not have a bilateral agreement with France. Such agreements typically provide for reparations in exchange for protection from lawsuits.

A Maryland law passed in 2011 required SNCF to provide access to its World War II records before Keolis could win a major MARC commuter rail contract. That contract went to a lower bidder. State officials said that law did not jeopardize any federal transit funding because the state was able to pay for the contract with all state funds.

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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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