1. Archive

Consider the victims, and pass the bill

There's no limit to what the Florida Legislature can do, or to how quickly it can do it, when the leadership deems it important.

Such as renaming the Florida Turnpike for a former president who never had anything to do with the highway.

Some bills, on the other hand, seem mired in the legislative muck for no apparent reason.

One bears particular watching as the session winds down to Friday's scheduled adjournment.

It would give Florida a hook on some of the European life insurance companies that profited from the Holocaust.

Confronted after World War II with claims from survivors whose family members had been gunned, gassed or starved to death by the Nazis, the companies found all sorts of hypertechnical reasons not to pay.

Show us the death certificates, they would say.

To compare those companies with hyenas and vultures would be to demean noble beasts.

Some companies situated in Eastern Europe couldn't have paid had they wanted to because they had been seized by new Communist governments. Only recently have their records become available to support claims.

"As a result," says a Florida Senate staff report, "victims of the Holocaust and their beneficiaries were frequently unable to collect the money that was rightfully theirs, further compounding the injustice they had already suffered."

A $1-billion lawsuit has been filed in New York against 15 European insurance firms that are still stonewalling survivors and their families.

A swifter and possibly surer remedy is available to the states, as proposed by a number of insurance commissioners, including Florida's Bill Nelson.

At least five companies doing business in Florida are affiliates or subsidiaries of European companies that wrote life insurance policies between 1920 and 1945. Some finally have begun to process Holocaust survivor claims.

The proposed Holocaust Victims Insurance Act would require Florida-licensed insurers to "diligently and expeditiously investigate all such claims," allow claimants to meet "a reasonable, not unduly restrictive standard of proof" and honor the claims even though the time for filing them might have run out long ago. The companies would be required to document their efforts to find beneficiaries for unclaimed policies.

Recalcitrant companies could be fined $1,000 a day, have their licenses lifted and be sued for treble damages.

There are some potential constitutional problems. But then nothing in any nation's constitution anticipated the Holocaust or the amoral greed of the postwar profiteers.

The bill should have been a cinch to pass _ and to a point, it has been. The House voted for it 117-0 Tuesday. It has also cleared all Senate committees. But prime sponsor Steve Geller, D-Pembroke Pines, has been begging himself blue in the face to get it scheduled for action on the Senate floor.

On Wednesday, Geller _ declaring himself "no more Mr. Nice Guy" _ was wondering aloud whether unseen Republican hands were blocking the bill to deny Nelson, a Democrat, any legislative victories before this year's election. Even though there are Republican co-sponsors, Nelson's people were wondering aloud in the same vein.

"That's absolutely, unequivocally not true," responded Bob Sparks, a spokesman for state GOP Chairman Tom Slade. "Just for bringing it up, a 15-yard personal foul."

It is true, however, that none of Nelson's priority bills has passed this year and that the GOP spent more than $250,000 to televise "issue ads" attacking Nelson over his homeowners' rate reduction bill that were plainly designed to soften him up for a Republican challenge in November.

Even so, it's hard to believe that anyone would play partisan politics at the expense of Holocaust victims. If there is an unseen hand, it could merely be that of the insurance industry, which of course would still be sinister enough.

Geller's bill remained stuck in the Rules Committee on Wednesday. But he did get a promise that when another Senate insurance bill returns from the House with amendments today, he'll have an opportunity to add the Holocaust provisions to it.

But that would be putting them at risk to the existing differences between the two houses over the other bill, which deals with windstorm insurance and workers' compensation.

Why not simply take up and pass the House version of Geller's bill and send it straight to the governor?

Only the leadership knows. And they're not saying.