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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, JULY 20, 2012 Can Schneider steer Claims Conference past $57 million fraud? PAGE 17A Courtesy of Claims Conference Claims Conference chief Greg Schneider visits a Nazi victim at her home in Moldova. JTA special report: Beyond fraud, part i of 2. By Uriel Heilman NEW YORK (JTA)---The first sign that something was amiss at the Conference on Jewish Material Claims- Against Germany happened to fall on an auspicious date on the Jewish calendar: Nov. 9, 2009, the anniversary of Kristallnacht. Greg Schneider had been at the helm of the Claims Confer- ence, which administers the distribution of billions of dol- lar in Holocaust reparations from Germany, for less than five months when a telephone operator responsible for talk- ing to survivors and entering data noted something highly unusual. An application for payment from Germany's Hardship Fund, which grants one-time payouts of approximately $3,500 to Jews who fled the Nazis as they swept eastward through Europe, had been approved in less than three weeks. The process normally takes months. A senior staffer was called, and the application was brought to Schneider. He found it curious but didn't think too much of it until a week later, when a similar irregularity cropped up on an- other submission. Schneider's heart dropped. He summoned the senior staffer, whom I'll call M., into his office, and the two began feverishly reviewing applica- tions. They stayed up all night searching for patterns and outliers among thousands of claims, scrutinizing dates of birth; places of residence,war- time experiences and Claims Conference caseworkers. The more anomalies they found, the more nervous Schneider became. By morning it was clear that they had stumbled onto a massive fraud, in all likeli- hood perpetrated by their own employees. Schneider, now 45, imme- diately phoned tile chairman of the Claims Conference board, Julius Berman, a prominent member of New York's Jewish community and an attorney at the law firm Kaye Scholer. "Listen, we've got a prob- lem," Schneider told Berman. "It's not me and it's not [M.], but I can't be sure of anyone else." Over the next couple of days, Berman, Schneider and senior leaders at the Claims Conference, tried to figure out a game plan. If word were to leak that the organization had allowed millions of dollars to be fraudulently obtained from Germany in the name of Holocaust survivors, it "could jeopardize the Claims Conference's entire opera- tions, its relationship with the Germans and the distribution of hundreds of millions per year to Holocaust survivors around the worll. The disclosure could sully the whole Jewish effort to recoup compensation for Jew- ish suffering at the hands of the Nazis The Claims Conference had been leading that effort, with varying success, since 1951, when the organization was foundedby the Israeli government and a consortium of Jewish organizations to represent the Jewish people in negotiations with Germany and Austria for Holocaust reparations. Never in the six- decade history of the organi- zation had theft of this scale ever been discovered. "I was petrified somebody would find this out before we could make it clear that we were on top of it," Schneider told JTA. "I insisted wego to the authorities immediately." ,Berman says he didn't want the organization to fall into the "Nixon trap." "We would never be able to recover from someone charg- ing that we tried to cover up," he said. But the lawyers retained by the Claim Conference immediately after discovering the fraud counseled a differ- ent path: Wait a bit and See what else could be turned up in order to build a convinc- ing ,enough case "for federal investigators to get involved. From farm to (negotiat- ing) table If things had gone a little differently for Schneider, he might have been a chicken egg farmer in rural New England rather than the head of the organization that oversees billions of what many Jews describe as "holy money." They almost did. Raised on a family farm in Fitchville, Conn., in the sparsely populated southeast- ern corner of the state, Sch- neider came from a family that had been breeding chicken eggs for four generations. His Russian,born great- grandfather, Nathan Kofkoff, had gone to Connecticut in the early 20th century, part of a mass movement of urban Jews who were encouraged to leave the city and move to the country to farm rural plots of land. The program was fueled by interest-free loans from the Baron de Hirsch Fund, which sought t9 promote ag- ricultural work for America's Jewish immigrants. Within a few years, the vast majority of the newly minted farmers had failed and returned to the city, but the Kofkoffs found a market for their eggs and they stayed. That decision might have made Schneider heir to a vast family fortune had his paternal grandfather, Abe Schneider--a Brooklyn boy who married into the family and moved up to the farm-- gone into t egg business. But Greg Schneider's city- boy granddaddy was too weak to haul the chicken feed and instead opened up a plumb- ing supply store in town. Abe's brother-in-law--Greg's great-uncle--took over the business, eventually turning it into one of America's largest egg producers. Wi_th annual revenues of $50 million to $100 million and a production run of 12 million eggs per week, the Kofkoff Egg Farm conglomerate was sold a few years ago to Land O'Lakes, one of the largest dairy companies in America. Though Schneider's grandparents had quit the egg business, they never left the farmstead. When Sch- neider's father, Raymond, married a New Yorker--the daughter of Orthodox Jewish Hungarian immigrants w.hose families had stayed behind in Europe and were murdered by the Nazis--he joined him in Connecticut. It was an alluring new life for Schneider's mother, Roslyn, who sought to escape the urban, Orthodox setting of her youth and embrace her new husband's largely secular, rural life. By the time Greg was born, however, the family had begun embracing a more observant Jewish lifestyle. While his two older siblings had attended public schools in Connecticut, where the name Schneider stuck out like apiece of pickled herring in a shrimp cocktail, the much younger Greg was... Uriel Heilman Claims Conference chief Grey Schneider, shown in his Manhattan office, in some months spends more time in Berlin than in New York. Julius Berman, chairman of the Claims Conference, says ence was as impossible to anticipate as the 9/11 attacks. sent to a Conservative Jewish day school even though it was more than an hour's commute each way by car. It was a group trip to Israel at age 15 with the Conserva- tive movement's youth arm, United Synagogue Youth, that Schneider credits with sparking his yearning for a Jewish path. "After a few days in Israel, I felt more at home and more connected than I did in 15 years on the farm," Schneider said. "I didn't fit in with that farm life. I always knew I wanted to do Jewish." But Schneider didn't want to be a rabbi. He wanted to lead a major Jewish organization. So he went to Brandeis for college, earned a master's degree in Jewish professional leadership, interned at the Boston Jewish federation and married an Orthodox Jewish woman from Brooklyn. Schneider's Jewish career then took a detour. Her an a board games company that he and a partner launched. They struck it big with a 1991 garo- called rhymation that became a best-seller at FAO Schwarz, the New York toy company. Today, vintage copies of rhymation-- its trademarked slogan, "The rhyming sensation that's sweep- ing the nation" is a Schneider original--are selling for $200 on eBay. The slogan still makes Schneider grinmand cringe. But Schneider gradually Claims Conference the fraud at the Claims Confer- returned to the professional track he envisioned, attending Harvard to get-a master's in public policy at the Kennedy School and then moving to New York in 1995 to take a job at the Claims Conference. He started offas an assistant to the founding chief of the organization, Saul Kagan, and eventually worked his way up to chief operating officer=--the organization's NO. 2. In July 2009, when the top post was vacated by Gideon Taylor, the organization's board chose Schneider as his successor. At age 42, he finally had landed his dream job. Then came the fraud. Next week: Days of .reck- oning. FIRST WE LISTEN... THEN WE DELIVER! LET MY 41 YEARS OF INSURANCE EXPERIENCE REVIEW YOUR COVERAGES AND DESIGN A PACKAGE THAT PROTECTS YOUR BUSINESS BY MEETING YOUR SPECIAL NEEDS.* All Forms of Insurance Products for Business Retailers, Manufacturers, Contractors, Service Industries, Restaurants, Child Care, Physicians, Attorneys Call Today To Schedule An Appointment At Your Convenience Marshall L. Helbraun Representing The Sihle Insurance Group, Inc. An Independant Insurance Agency Phone: 1-800-432-6652 (407) 761-3521 (cell phone)