Aug 12

Zion’s Avenger

In the first suit of its kind, Dallas attorney Mark Werbner is suing the biggest bank in the Middle East for $1 billion. No, he won’t settle.

by Todd Bensman

The Orthodox Jew who boarded Bus 14A in downtown Jerusalem fooled everyone. Under the prayer shawls and hat was an 18-year-old Palestinian wearing belts of high explosives, packed with ball bearings. His bomb shredded the bus, smashed buildings in all directions for 50 yards, and released a fireball that set pedestrians ablaze. Seventeen people died that day, June, 11, 2003; 105 others were wounded. The terrorist group Hamas claimed credit.

Among the dead was 70-year-old Jerusalem resident Berta Tita. Her son Ezra was visiting from Dallas for the wedding of his sister. He had to provide pathologists with his blood so they could use DNA to identify his mother’s remains. In the following days, Israeli helicopter missile attacks killed several Hamas militants, but those did little to relieve Ezra’s outrage, and he returned to Dallas, his home for 25 years, feeling helpless.

In February 2005, almost two years after his mother’s death, Ezra learned of a federal lawsuit filed in Brooklyn—a lawsuit without precedent, filed under new provisions of the American Anti-Terrorist Act. Americans who had lost loved ones or been wounded themselves by attacks in Israel had sued the Arab Bank, the largest in the Middle East. Based in Amman, Jordan, it has assets of $36 billion. The suit, filed in 2004, sought damages of

$1 billion, claiming the bank for years provided services to keep Hamas and other terrorist organizations flush with cash, through the bank’s branches in the Middle East, in Europe, and on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue. Ezra Tita signed on as one of 50 American families representing some 200 plaintiffs.

Today, the suit has garnered international media coverage. It has also helped spark investigations by the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Currency Control, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, and the FBI. Treasury department regulators recently levied $24 million in sanctions against the Arab Bank. They all but forced the closure of the bank’s Manhattan operations for “failing to manage the risks … of terrorist financing.” Perhaps more important, the ongoing lawsuit has provided the model and inspiration for new lawsuits against international banks in France and Great Britain that have also allegedly financed terrorist organizations.

And the man who essentially started it all, who signed on Ezra Tita at a Starbucks at Hillcrest and Arapaho, is a Dallas attorney named Mark Werbner. He’s a brilliant, well-respected lawyer who has won hundreds of millions of dollars in wrongful death and personal injury claims. But to Werbner, this lawsuit is different. It’s become a personal crusade.

THE SUITES OF SAYLES WERBNER SIT HIGH above the streets of Dallas, on the 44th floor of Renaissance Tower. Past several long corridors, past a painting by Rizzi stretched across an entryway wall and a row of bay windows overlooking downtown, is Werbner’s office. He’s leaning back in his chair, dressed in jeans and a white button-down shirt. He has a flat voice and a double chin and, at 52, is balding. To his left are bookshelves, one of them lined with embossed court documents representing his big wins.

For nearly a decade, Werbner and his partner, Dick Sayles, have racked up wins in court: a $20 million verdict against American Airlines (in 1996, a jury agreed that the company’s enormous and distracting gate-information signs at DFW Airport had caused a car crash that led to some serious injuries); a $71 million verdict against a chartered bus company for a crash near Terrell that killed four teenagers and the driver. Then there was the $454 million verdict against CompUSA and Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helu for breach of contract. It was the largest jury verdict in the history of Dallas County  but was later overturned by the Texas Court of Appeals.

Werbner is not demure about these wins. He’s notorious in legal circles for the publicists he has hired. On the firm’s web site, with a banner that reads “Masters of the Courtroom,” one can find Werbner news clippings and television appearances. And, in fact, a Google search for “Mark Werbner” will return a sponsored link (aka an ad) for his site, promoting his case against the Arab Bank.

Despite his self-promotion, though, Werbner’s is respected by his peers. The man is simply that good. Part of it is that Werbner loves the battle. “A lot of lawyers who handle big cases try to work them out,” says Dallas attorney George Bramblett Jr., of Haynes and Boone. “There’s always a big push to settle. Not Mark. Mark likes to go to court. He likes to try lawsuits.”

To understand his latest, though, one must first understand Werbner’s journey—with his people and his faith. His grandfather settled in 1923 in San Antonio, one of nine siblings who fled the anti-Semitic pogroms in Czarist Russia. But he rarely spoke of them, and Werbner grew up in a mostly secular house.

“It was in my genes, no doubt, in my blood all along,” Werbner says of his heritage. “But out there in the hinterlands of San Antonio, it was very theoretical. There were two lives. There was lighting the candles every Friday evening for the Sabbath, and then you would go out and party.”

He attended the University of Texas in Austin, then got his law degree from Southern Methodist University, where he graduated fourth in his class. In 1978, Werbner found work as a civil trial attorney for Carrington, Coleman, Sloman & Blumenthal. He married Cheryl Pollman in 1980, a lawyer he’d met while both were in school at SMU.

Werbner shifted from secular lawyer to Zionist activist in 1984, when he and his wife took a trip abroad with a group of Dallas Jews. Visiting Auschwitz, they saw the shower rooms where Jews were gassed; the ovens where their remains were burned; the shoes, eyeglasses, and luggage left behind. For Werbner, it was all suddenly much more than the history books. And from these camps, the group traveled to Israel.

This juxtaposition—“coming from the ashes of the crematorium to the steps of the parliament in Israel,” says Cheryl Pollman—was transformative. After returning to Dallas, they joined just about every Jewish service organization in town.

“My wife and I were like souls on fire,” Werbner says. “It was like I had what I considered to be a fairly boring, average life. And suddenly I saw I had this great treasure of things that offered purpose, challenge, and adventure.”

In 1991, during the first Gulf War, Werbner answered the call from Jewish service organizations looking for Americans to fill the void in the civilian work force left by a massive Israeli military call up. Israel had been flooded with thousands of Russian immigrants, and Werbner was assigned to census duty. He went from apartment to apartment with a clipboard, huddling with new immigrants during nighttime Scud bombardments. He says he saw the ordeal as a test of his commitment to the state.

“In a lot of ways it was, ‘Okay, you’ve been Mr. Israel for six years now. Are you really a friend?’” he says. “‘Are you going to put your money where your mouth is?’ I felt I needed to maybe prove to myself that this [newfound love of Israel] wasn’t just an infatuation.”

It wasn’t. A decade later, with Hamas suicide bombers attacking his adoptive country, Werbner flew to Israel time and again. But he left for Dallas each time feeling ineffective and increasingly angry.

In April 2004, Werbner received an e-mail from Gary Osen, a lawyer in New Jersey. Osen and a number of other attorneys had decided to use the American Anti-Terrorism Act to sue the Arab Bank on behalf of American victims of terrorists. Anticipating a vigorous, well-financed defense from the bank, Osen was looking for a lawyer who would relish a courtroom brawl. A colleague in Houston suggested Werbner.

Werbner immediately took the lead on the case, and by May, he and Osen were in Israel meeting with potential plaintiffs. By July, they’d filed suit against the Arab Bank in a federal court in Brooklyn.

Here is what the lawsuit alleges: documents seized and released to the public by the Israeli military, pieced together with other publicly available records from Israeli courtrooms and newspapers, show a “terrorist insurance” program that was openly advertised in Palestinian newspapers and on local radio. Many of the ads Werbner’s team collected were sponsored by the Saudi Committee in Support of the Intifada. They promised suicide bombers that money for housing and living expenses would be made available to their families after their martyrdom. The ads instructed families to draw their stipends from their nearest Arab Bank branch. Family members had only to present a “martyrs certificate,” which the Palestinian government provided, to a teller at any of the more than 30 Arab Bank branches that had been opened in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But terrorist insurance was not the bank’s only service, the lawsuit alleges. It says donors from around the world wired money through the Arab Bank directly to well-known terrorist groups or charities in the territories set up and controlled by terrorists.

The bank’s spokesman, Bob Chlotak, says the bank knew nothing of the program and would never knowingly support terrorism. The so-called “martyr certificates” were only bank account cards, he says. And the newspaper advertisements were not sponsored by the bank but by the Saudi Committee.

In all this, one should be mindful of where Werbner’s documentation for the suit originated: Israel. Werbner goes mum when asked to name which sources, or who, helped form the suit. “I can’t really get into that,” he says, frowning. “There are a lot of unique and sensitive components to that. I can certainly say that this lawsuit has given me a glimpse into how geopolitics and diplomatic situations can come into play in a case like this.” He is equally circumspect when asked about the financial details of the suit, whether he’s working on contingency, and who is paying for the research and travel associated with the case.

Still, the federal judge presiding over Werbner’s suit in September denied the Arab Bank’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit on grounds that evidence cited in the case came from unreliable foreign sources. This cleared the way not only for a trial (date still undetermined), but also for new lawsuits filed this year against other alleged financiers of terrorism, namely the British bank NatWest and the French bank Crédit Lyonnais.

On top of that, the U.S. Treasury Department recently assessed a $24 million penalty against the Arab Bank and forced its New York branch to halt its wire transfer business, due to “internal control weaknesses, particularly with regard to its international funds transfer activities.”

THIS YEAR, HAMAS WAS ELECTED THE RULING party in the Palestinian occupied territories. It now needs hundreds of millions of dollars to run a government. But Hamas is still legally viewed as a terrorist organization by nations where most of the world’s financial centers reside, and banks are worried governments will crack down if they transfer any money at all to Hamas. The threat of lawsuits like Werbner’s only reinforces the uncertainty. As a result, the Hamas government is starving for cash.

Meanwhile, Werbner’s suit carries on. He has persuaded the judge to force the Arab Bank to release millions of pages of internal communications between managers and charitable account holders linked to Hamas. Werbner thinks that will prove the bank did, contrary to its defense, have full knowledge of how its services were being used and by whom.

Todd Bensman is a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News.

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