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Holocaust Insurance Bills Signed by Wilson
20,000 in state may be due unpaid claims

On the day before Yom Kippur, Governor Pete Wilson signed two bills designed to make it easier for Holocaust survivors and their families to collect on unpaid World War II-era insurance claims.

One bill orders the state Department of Insurance to research unpaid claims and yank the California business license of any insurance company that refuses to pay a valid claim.

The other exempts payment of those claims and other recovered assets from state taxes.

``This is a major human rights statement that's going to impact across the world,'' said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, at a Capitol news conference.

Wilson estimates that as many as 20,000 California Holocaust survivors and their heirs may have legitimate unpaid claims.

The Republican governor said the bills ensure that ``some measure of justice is done for as many survivors of the Holocaust, as soon as possible.''

In 1997, the Swiss Bankers Association published three lists of accounts that have been dormant since World War II. The association says the list of non-Swiss residents' accounts contains the names of Holocaust survivors.

A Swiss commission says that $440 million -- $4 billion in today's dollars -- of property stripped from Holocaust victims flowed to Switzerland and its banks.

From that investigation, it was found that insurance companies had refused to honor some insurance claims brought by survivors.

Wilson said some insurers refused to pay because of nonpayment of premium while the victim was in a concentration camp or because heirs could not produce a death certificate.

Under the bill, the insurance department will receive $4 million to investigate claims and pore over insurance company records to compile a list of unpaid legitimate claims.

Refusal to pay such a claim would lead to suspension of the right of the insurer to operate in California until the matter is resolved.

Money from the claims pay- outs or from dormant bank accounts would not be taxed. Nor would the income make people ineligible for public assistance if they currently receive it.

After the press conference, Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush acknowledged that it will be extremely complicated trying to figure out who is due what.

For instance, some families may have already been paid off, he said.

``The insurance industry in California tried to stay away from this,'' said Quackenbush of the bill.

He noted that there was no public opposition to the measures in the Legislature, but he said several companies quietly voiced their opposition in the Capitol's halls.

Wilson also signed a bill yesterday that gives the Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance $2.5 million to build a new children's Holocaust exhibition and teaching center.


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