Turning grief into action
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Turning grief into action

Stephen Flatow talks about his long quest for justice for Alisa - and the fine assessed against BNP Paribas

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Stephen and Alisa Flatow stand together, the love between them evident, as she graduates from the Frisch School in Paramus in 1992.

As more and more bleak news from Israel continues to chill hearts here, the parents of all four murdered boys – the three Jews and the one Arab – will have to learn how to live without them.

It is a pain that they will feel forever, but they will learn to manage somehow, each in his or her own way.

In this country, Stephen Flatow models a way to take grief, fashion it into a lance, and wield it powerfully in his quest for justice. Ever since his daughter, Alisa – a Brandeis student who graduated from the Frisch School in Paramus and was spending her junior year abroad in Israel – was killed by terrorists, blown up, along with everyone else on board, as she rode a bus to an Israeli beach, Mr. Flatow has fought to make her murderers, and the terrorist state that supported them, pay for her death.

There is, of course, an odd way in which he is lucky, at least relatively speaking, in having access to the bizarre biochemical process that allows grief to morph into action; that is better than the kind of grief that eats away inside.

And, of course, the long-term, circuitously-arrived-at results of the work that Mr. Flatow began in 1995, when Alisa died, has ended in the largest penalty a bank has agreed to pay along with a guilty plea. BNP Paribas, a huge French bank whose leaders pleaded guilty to doing business with countries that are not allowed to trade with the United States – and lying about doing so – has agreed to an $8.9 billion penalty. That is the largest fine ever assessed for that reason.

Islamic Jihad took responsibility for the bombing, which is called the Kfar Darom bus attack, and the U.S. State Department said that the Iranian government had funded the terrorists. So Mr. Flatow – a lawyer who lives in South Orange and works in Jersey City – and his team began by getting federal legislation enacted that allowed them to proceed with their suit against the government of Iran. No government representatives “ever appeared to answer to defend themselves,” Mr. Flatow said. “We satisfactorily proved to the judge that they were responsible, and he awarded us a judgment of $250 million.”

Were he actually to have been given that enormous sum – which still would be worth infinitely less to him than his daughter – Mr. Flatow and his family would be staggeringly rich today. But they are not. Why? “When a client gets a judgment, you try to enforce it,” he said. He could not. “My two attorneys started to identify Iranian assets,” he said. “First we went to Washington and located state property. When we tried to attach it, the State Department, which until then had been very good to us, became our worst enemy.”

Once it was clear that the U.S. government would not allow the Flatows to go anywhere near Iranian government property, “We knew we had to locate commercial assets,” Mr. Flatow said.

He and his team found some Iranian commercial assets in Maryland, and then they began to look at New York City records. “We got the idea that the Iranian government owned a big skyscraper in Manhattan,” he said. Using Westlaw, LexisNexis’s precursor, they “ran property searches, and we came up with this lead,” he said. “It looks like there is an office building, the Piaget Building, held by the Alavi Foundation.” The building is in midtown, on Fifth Avenue at 52nd Street, near Rockefeller Center; its most well-known recent tenant was Godiva Chocolatier.

“We did more research, and we found that the Alavi Foundation once had been the Pahlavi Foundation,” Mr. Flatow said. Pahlavi was the family name of the Shah of Iran. “He was the government,” Mr. Flatow said. “And all of a sudden, in 1980, the very esteemed members of the Pahlavi Foundation resigned.” One of them, he said parenthetically, was William Rogers, who had been President Richard Nixon’s secretary of state.

The foundation’s name was changed to “something like the Fund for Martyrs,” he continued. “And then, I think, someone who was looking at it said something like ‘Are we out of our minds? Let’s give it a more normal name,’ and they changed it to Alavi.

“What caught my eye was that there was no high-powered legal firm doing this work. It was just one lawyer somewhere in Orange County.” Shades of Bernie Madoff and his accounting department.

This was 1999; that year, “we go to federal district court, and we say that we have a judgment against the Iranian government, and the Alavi foundation is part and parcel of it. And the Department of Justice says not so fast. You have to show the government’s day-to-day control of the foundation in order to pierce the protection of sovereign immunity,” Mr. Flatow said.

“It was politics,” he added. “Madeleine Albright” – President Bill Clinton’s secretary of state – “was hell-bent on restoring some kind of normalcy with Iran. She wanted to do it by lifting duties from caviar, pistachios, and Persian carpets.”

Unsurprisingly, that effort did not work, but it did delay Mr. Flatow’s work against Iran by a decade or so. He lost in court when he tried to press his case. “We had our clock cleaned,” he said.

A few years went by, and then it was September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (and the accidental crash in a field in Pennsylvania), the federal government became interested in tracing terrorists’ funding.

“Someone had the brainstorm of bringing in a former military man from Israel as a consultant,” Mr. Flatow said. This man, Eitan Arusy, started investigating, finding all the information he could find about various terrorist attacks, their funding, and their ties to governments.

“And it turns out that there is more.”

“Eitan Arusy turned out to be far more than he seemed. He had investigated Alisa’s bombing at Kfar Darom. He’s looking at these connections. He recognizes her name.

“He walks up to Foley Square” – the downtown hub for government agencies representing many branches and levels of various municipal, state, and federal organizations. “He pulls out a file, and sees the allegation that led to the tracing of the money to the banks.

“In the end, everything comes down to personal relationships,” he said. “It all comes down to people.”

Mr. Arusy could follow the money trail up to a point, “but then it went entirely cold.” There was no trace of what happened to any money after that.

Eventually, prosecutors realized some banks, include Credit Suisse and Lloyds, were substituting other names for the foundation. All they had to do, Mr. Flatow said, was replace one name with another. In 2009, a whistleblower implicated BNP Paribas as well. “They were able to keep on doing it until everything started to unwind,” Mr. Flatow said. “Then the story tumbles downhill.”

To some extent, his interest in this settlement is almost academic. It is BNP Paribas that will pay the huge fine – which is not so huge for a bank of its size – not the Iranian government, which has come out of this legal process financially unscathed. The fine will be divided up among many hundreds of terror victims – each one of whom deserves far more than that – so it will not go very far.

Meanwhile, Mr. Flatow, whose four living children have 15 children between them, says that “Alisa is locked in at 20.” This year she would have turned 40, but she never will grow older. There never will be new photographs of her.

“Back in 1997, my daughter Ilana stood in for me at a rally in Manhattan,” he said. “She began by saying, ‘My name is Ilana Flatow, and in a few months I will be older than my older sister.'”

Not only does he have some idea of how the families of all the murdered young men feel now – and will feel as time plays its sometimes welcome, sometimes agonizing tricks on them – but he also has a special connection to one of the families.

Rabbanit Rachel Sprecher Fraenkel, the mother of 16-year-old Naftali, who was buried last week, is the head of the Hilkhata program at Matan, a gap-year program in Israel, and she also teaches at Nishmat in Jersualem. That is where Alisa Flatow was studying when she was killed; there is now a building and a program at Nishmat, endowed by her family, dedicated to her.

Mr. Flatow talked about the alchemy of changing grief into action. “I am a very lucky person,” he said. “Where I became lucky was when I was invited to become a member of a speaking bureau for the United Jewish Appeal. There was a time when I was speaking two or three times a week.

“I would tell the story of Israel, and of Alisa, and I would talk about why it is important to stand up for Israel.

“We are all one family.

“That ended up being the best therapy I could get. Every parent, every sibling reacts differently. I was just extremely lucky that God opened my mouth – and that the stuff that started coming out of it makes sense most of the time.”

He is vehement about the truth that he still is Alisa’s father. He won’t allow anyone to put that sentence in the past tense.

He talks about his relationship with President Clinton. “He might have been a philanderer, he might have been corrupt, but he called me,” Mr. Flatow said.

He recalls one conversation in particular. “He said that my wife and I were talking at breakfast about how brave a man you are,” he said; he was talking about Mr. Flatow’s dogged refusal to give up what seemed at many points to be a quixotic quest. “I said, ‘Mr. President, wouldn’t you do anything for your daughter? Just because Alisa is dead, she hasn’t stopped being my daughter.'”

When he sued Iran for wrongful death in 2002, “We had spent the day with our attorney, Thomas Fay, going over our testimony,” Mr. Flatow said. The idea is that a witness should not be surprised by the questions coming from his own lawyer. But the first one that he was asked threw him. “Fay is a big man, physically big, and so is the judge,” Mr. Flatow said. “Fay says, ‘Were you the father of Alisa Flatow?’ and I say ‘No. I still am her father.’

“‘They both turned away from me. Their eyes filled up.’

“I will not let anyone say that I was her father. I still am.”

He has one last piece of hard-won advice for other parents. “I finish every conversation with my kids by saying ‘I love you.’ You never know when it will be the last conversation.”

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