Faced with the prospect of an investigation by New York Attorney General Elliott Spitzer’s office into its financial dealings, the World Jewish Congress is close to working out an agreement with its chief inside critic that would include holding the full and independent audit he has been demanding, The Jewish Week has learned.Sources close to the issue say that Stephen Herbits, transition director of the WJC, met this week in Israel with Isi Leibler, a former leader of the Australian Jewish community living in Israel who WJC officials sought to remove as senior vice president this fall for alleging financial improprieties within the venerable organization.
In what appears to be a dramatic change of course, the WJC officials now seem ready to credit Leibler for his call for internal reform after vilifying him for months as a malcontent intent on embarrassing the organization.Whether or not an internal resolution of the WJC controversy will forestall a possible probe by the attorney general remains to be seen. Timing is of the essence to resolve the dispute because the attorney general’s office has been making preliminary inquiries into the charges and has a meeting set with WJC officials Jan. 6 here.Robert Abrams, a former attorney general for New York State, has been hired as special counsel to the World Jewish Congress. He told The Jewish Week on Wednesday that “an informal inquiry” has been undertaken by the attorney general’s office and that he and the WJC “are eager to work with the office.”In addition, the WJC has scheduled a three-day plenary in Brussels beginning Jan. 9, the thrust of which was to formally oust Leibler and elect new officers. It is believed that the plenary will go on as scheduled but that the only elections will be for a new treasurer and to confirm Herbits as director, though he appears ready, if not eager, to step down as soon as planned reforms are put in place.A committee working on a new constitution for the organization is expected to continue its work with the goal of completion by 2006.The audit is expected to go back at least five years in the WJC’s accounts and take at least six months.
It would also deal with questions raised by leaders of the Swiss Jewish community about a series of transactions that took place last year involving $1.2 million believed to be set aside for pensions for employees, including that of Israel Singer, the longtime key executive of the WJC and now lay leader.Singer has worked closely with Edgar Bronfman, president of the WJC, for more than two decades. Both publicly accused Leibler this fall of attempting to destroy Bronfman and the organization by raising questions about WJC financial affairs and calling for new governance and transparency. The controversy began when Leibler called attention to the previously undisclosed $1.2 million account that had been in a Swiss bank. When he and several current and former Swiss officials of the WJC sought answers to the origins and intent of the account, Bronfman called an executive meeting here in September to oust Leibler from his volunteer post, noting in a memo to the 24-member WJC steering committee that he viewed the charges as “assaults on my tenure, my integrity and my person.”Critics of Leibler said he was motivated by political differences with Bronfman, who is more dovish on Israel, and by his frustration over not being successful in succeeding Bronfman as WJC leader, charges Leibler has denied.The steering committee voted to remove Leibler, a decision that was to have been formalized at the plenary in Brussels, but that appears to have been hindered this week. Singer told The Jewish Week in September that he planned to fight the allegations because “there is no scandal, and I’m not going to be threatened.”Since that time Herbits, a former top aide of Bronfman’s in the philanthropist’s family-owned Seagrams liquor business, has served as spokesman for the WJC in his post as transitional director, which he assumed this summer. The World Jewish Congress, founded in 1936, has focused on combating worldwide anti-Semitism and, most notably in recent years played a leading role in assuring restitution for Holocaust survivors and securing hundreds of millions of dollars in repayment from Swiss banks. Singer also serves as president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and heads an international Christian-Jewish interfaith dialogue organization.