Families of victims face disputes over money

Think of it as a 9/11 nightmare – all these years later.

Thousands of relatives of victims of America’s deadliest terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 joined forces nearly two decades ago to file a lawsuit against various nations that may have provided financial support to the Islamist agents of Osama bin Laden who carried out the attacks.

the Saudi government has long been a prime target. Iran too. And Sudan. And Afghanistan. And, finally, the Taliban.

At stake: the largest trial in American judicial history.

If the victims of 9/11 win, they could split hundreds of billions of dollars in compensation. But the key to victory was unity. The more than 10,000 victims and their loved ones who signed on to the lawsuit — and their legions of attorneys from various high-profile law firms — had to work together and trust each other.

This week, this confidence is broken down.

The family community of 9/11 victims is fractured after President Joe Biden signed an executive order directing that $3.5 billion in Afghan government assets be distributed to relatives of those killed in the attacks. Which families will benefit, and when, is at the root of the brewing conflict.

“It’s a disaster,” said Brett Eagleson of Middletown, Connecticut, who lost his father, Bruce, in the September 11 attacks and has since become a major voice in the lawsuit.

Amanda Froehlich of Smithtown, NY places a flower in the name of her grandfather Philip Hayes who was director of fire safety and died on 9/11.  The 9/11 commemoration ceremony marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  The ceremony took place at the 9/11 Memorial Plaza at the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan, NY on September 11, 2021.

“It’s so screwed up,” added James Kreindler, one of the trial’s lead attorneys.

Whether this fracture between the lawyers and the relatives of the victims can be repaired remains an open question. But he’s already erupted in the kind of finger-pointing that could derail the giant court case.

“The Saudis are applauding,” Kreindler said. “They would like nothing better than the 9/11 community fighting among themselves.”

The most recent uproar begins with the kind of behind-the-scenes legal maneuverings that were meant to create mistrust, experts say.

Lawyers for a group of victims and relatives secretly broke ranks months ago, positioning themselves to take a leadership position to collect some of the money from the lawsuit before others do. can cash. friendships and raising questions about whether the American legal system will ever be able to come to grips with this complicated case.

How bad is discord now? Kreindler, in an interview this week, described victims and their lawyers hoping to cash in before anyone else as “greedy pigs.”

A major concern, experts fear, is that the internal dispute between the victims and their lawyers could cloud extremely complicated efforts to expose the funding network that helped 19 al-Qaeda jihadists hijack four commercial airliners on 11 September 2001.

Kelly:The FBI begins opening its files on Saudi ties to 9/11. What do they show?

Exclusive:The 9/11 hijackers lived prominently in North Jersey. How did they do it?

The hijackers – 15 of whom were Saudi citizens – crashed two airliners into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, another in the Pentagon and another in an agricultural field near Shanksville, in Pennsylvania. Most of the hijackers lived openly in the United States for months, joining gyms, opening bank accounts, renting cars, dining in restaurants, and taking flying lessons.

A lingering question in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks is whether the hijackers were aided by like-minded compatriots here in America and, in particular, how they managed to pay for their activities in America before attacks.

The 9/11 commemoration ceremony marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  The ceremony took place at the 9/11 Memorial Plaza at the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan, NY on September 11, 2021.

9/11 Commission investigators, led by former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean, uncovered significant evidence that several Saudi intelligence officials played a role in helping two of the hijackers who later took refuge in a motel on Route 46 in South Hackensack, New Jersey. But efforts to determine whether the Saudi government – ​​or Iranian, Sudanese or Taliban leaders – played a much larger role have been thwarted by US intelligence agencies and the FBI, which have fought efforts to hand over files of secret investigation.

The struggle between the families of the victims – most of whom are US citizens – and US officials who refuse to disclose what they know of official Saudi, Iranian, Sudanese and Taliban ties to 9/11 culminated last September when Those close to 9/11 have threatened to stage protests if President Joe Biden attends ceremonies commemorating the 20th anniversary of the attack.

At the last minute, Biden brokered an unofficial truce with relatives of the victims and played a role in the ceremonies by promising to begin a process to declassify secret US intelligence files. But victims now say the process is moving at an icy pace and has not resulted in any significant disclosures.

Kelly:Biden seeks disclosure of 9/11 files. Will this decision prove Saudi ties?

Who will benefit — and when?

"Thoughts on 911" by Thomas Heed

Now comes the tumult over money.

Adding to that controversy is what appears to be a good faith attempt last week by the Biden administration to release $3.5 billion in confiscated funds from the Afghan government so they can be paid out to 9/11 victims.

This money was part of nearly $7 billion in investments in US banks by the Afghan government. After the September 11 attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Northern Virginia and Pennsylvania, Afghan assets were frozen by US banking authorities. With the collapse of the Afghan government last August and the flight of its leaders, the frozen funds were essentially in a financial vacuum.

In a surprise executive order last Friday, President Biden lifted the freeze and ordered that the $7 billion be disbursed in two separate ways.

Biden has called for $3.5 billion to be donated to a special trust fund to help pay for humanitarian relief efforts in Afghanistan, including food to alleviate famine and provide shelter for refugees following the takeover. control of the impoverished nation by the Taliban last August. The other half of the jar — about $3.5 billion — would be made available to victims of the 9/11 attacks and their loved ones, Biden said.

But Biden’s decision raised a tough question: Who gets the $3.5 billion for 9/11 victims first?

Biden’s executive order did not offer an answer. And this week, in response to questions from NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY Network, the White House put that question to the federal judges presiding over the New York trial of 9/11 victims and their loved ones.

“President Biden’s decision will keep these assets out of the hands of the Taliban and give plaintiffs every opportunity to have their claims heard in court,” said a White House spokesperson who asked not to be identified and would only talk about the substance of the matter. .

“The court will have to decide whether we can move $3.5 billion of these assets for the benefit of the Afghan people,” the official said, “and for the future of Afghanistan, while more than $3.5 billion of dollars in [frozen] the assets would remain in the United States for ongoing litigation by American victims of terrorism.

It remains unclear whether any of the 10,000 victims and relatives in the dispute have gone to the front of the queue.

The source of anger among the victims and their loved ones is a set of 47 families – the so-called “Havlish” litigants – who have submitted a special motion that could put them ahead of the game to receive the $3.5 billion.

The Havlish Group’s chief attorney, who goes by the name of George Havlish Jr., of Yardley, Pa., an insurance executive who died in the South Tower of the Trade Center, said that because he filed a request first, he should tackle the money first.

“Unfortunately, the law in New York is first-to-file gets their claim filed first,” said Dennis Pantazis, a Birmingham, Alabama-based attorney who advises the Havlish Group.

Pantazis, in a brief phone interview with NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY Network, declined to explain why he wanted his clients to come first and deferred further questions to a public relations firm in Washington, DC. He also declined to explain why he appeared to apply New York state laws on priority payment of compensation in lawsuits to a federal case.

“We’re trying to get the right message across,” Pantazis said.

Calls to Pantazis’ PR representative resulted in a terse, “No comment.”

Andrew Maloney, another lawyer representing the victims, called Pantazis’ complaint “immoral”.

“It pits the 9/11 families against each other,” Maloney said.

Some 9/11 victim leaders couldn’t believe the Havlish group would try to get the upper hand for compensation.

“Do you know how bad it’s going to be if $3.5 billion goes to such a small number of people and not others?” asked Terry Strada, formerly of Basking Ridge, New Jersey, who lost her husband in the Trade Centers Twin Towers collapse just days after giving birth to the couple’s son.

“Do you know how bad these people are going to look?” Strada added.

This is yet another of the many emotional questions that now frame this narrative.

“They’re trying to get ahead of the game,” said Jerry S. Goldman, a New York-based attorney who represents 500 victims, including John O’Neill, the former FBI counterterrorism expert who was killed at World Trade. Center just days after retiring from the office and being hired as a security consultant.

“When we line up in life, nobody likes it when the person tries to cut,” Goldman said. “We should all be in the same place in the line – nobody up front and nobody behind.”

Lawyers rushed this week to send in a flurry of motions, asking the federal judge and New York magistrate presiding over the 9/11 trial to delay any decision on the distribution of funds.

No decision has been made.

Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

E-mail: [email protected]

Twitter: @mikekellycolumn